(WOMENSENEWS)--Along with sculptures, books, drawings and paintings Aminah Lynn Robinson also produces mixed-media collages that she calls "RagGonNons." That's short for "rag on and on" because she continues to work on them for as long as 20 years.
Each new element of her work adds to a "memory map" that combines pieces of her own personal history with that of Africans in America from slavery to the present day, according to the exhibit catalog from the Brooklyn Museum where Robinson's work is on display through mid-August. The retrospective exhibit of her work includes nearly 100 pieces created over the past 60 years.
In 2004, Robinson won the $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship--the "genius" award--and today her work is represented by ACA Gallery, where it fetches anywhere from $5,000 to $65,000. "Slavery Chain" sold for $65,000 along with 13 other pieces the first day of the gallery show, which ran from late February through mid-April.
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, commissioned a RagGonNon by Robinson for $160,000, said Jeffrey Bergen, president and director of ACA Gallery in New York.
Struggle to Make Ends Meet
But for much of her life, the 66-year-old Robinson struggled to make ends meet. She worked for the Ohio Parks and Recreation Department for 19 years teaching art to children and senior citizens. She would wake at 4 a.m. to make art, teach and then return at night to continue working, said Nancy Duncan Porter, deputy director of institutional advancement at the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio.
Porter says that even though Robinson's work is in major museums and collections across the country she still wakes up at 4 a.m. and even continues to use "hogmawg," a cost-saving concoction that her father taught her to make that consists of mud, glue, dyes, lime and sticks, which she uses as a glue in much of her works.
Xenobia Bailey, a successful fiber artist in Harlem, N.Y., also maintains modest habits. While selling her crocheted wall hangings and carpets at prices ranging from $6,000 to $17,000 at Stefan Stux Gallery in New York she still sells smaller pieces such as hats and clothing for prices ranging from $50 to $1,500 to support herself, said Bailey.
In a country where women still earn 77 cents on the dollar compared to men, the art world's glass ceiling has been especially hard to crack. As recently as 1985, a major survey show of international painters and sculptors at the Museum of Modern Art in New York included 13 female artists out of 169. All of the artists were white.
Opening the Market
Yet in the last 10 years the market for female artists--particularly minority women--has opened up, said Kathe Kollwitz, the pseudonym of a member of the Guerilla Girls, a group of activists who satirize the male-dominated art world. "Ten years ago you wouldn't have found any women of color that had success. At the entry level things have changed for the better. But it is still few and far between."
Kara Walker's black cut-paper silhouettes, which typically depict images of slavery and chronicle the history of racism, gender and politics in the United States, are commanding prices ranging from $70,000 to $100,000 at auction houses such as Christie's.
Walker's work is on view until July 30 in a show she curated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York entitled "After the Deluge," which explores both the meaning of water and the role of the black figure in art in light of Hurricane Katrina. For this show Walker chose pieces from the Met's collection as well as those of her own to explore these topics.
Faith Ringgold, who is 75 and grew up in Harlem, is one of the artists represented by ACA Gallery, which deals in 19th and 20th century American art.
Ringgold is both an artist and activist who organized protests in the 1960s and 1970s against museums for not showing the work of women and people of color.
Today Ringgold's story quilt, "Tar Beach," which uses paint and cloth to depict a family on the roof on a summer night in Harlem, is part of the Guggenheim Museum collection and is the most requested piece for loans, according to Bergen.
"Part of the increasing interest in art by women of color is the wider pool of African American collectors that were not collecting 20 years ago and increased pressure on museums to reflect their constituency," said Bergen.
Bergen says major African American collectors of his clients' work include actor Bill Cosby and Dr. Walter Evans, a surgeon and art collector who is among the top collectors of African American art. White collectors, such as George and Joyce Wein, whose collection of African American art has been exhibited widely, are also supporting the market. Traditionally black colleges such as Hampton University in Virginia also have extensive African American collections.
While top prices are still going to male artists such as Romare Bearden, who died in 1988 and whose childhood in North Carolina and Harlem were favorite subjects for his numerous paintings and collages, Bergen says female artists such as Robinson are benefiting from the overall strength in the market. When a work by Bearden goes for half a million dollars a work of the same size by Robinson for $65,000 looks like a bargain, he says. Bergen represents both artists.
Twenty-one years ago, the Guerilla Girls--who act anonymously--began dressing as gorillas and appropriating the names of deceased female artists such as Frida Kahlo and Georgia O'Keeffe. They started in Soho, an artists' district in New York City, and have been satirizing the art world's fixation on white, male artists ever since.
They have put on public performances on four continents mocking what they see as the rampant racism and sexism of museum and gallery collections.
Some of their political artwork--posters, billboards, books--have become mainstream collectibles that are bought and sold at international art festivals and museums.
One of their typical creations is a 2002 poster that mocks the Academy Awards by showing anatomically correct "Oscar," a statue of a white, male, "just like the guys who win," which sells for about $20.
"Our work is in many museum collections, but we don't get art world prices for it," said Kollwitz.
Ruthie Ackerman is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn, N.Y. She has lived and worked in Africa and continues to write stories about gender and race relations in America.
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