Friday 1 March 2024

EDITORIAL | Commentary on the occasion of Augusta Savage's birthday

Yesterday, in the leap year of 2024, a Facebook memory reminded me of another February 29th post I made celebrating the birth of Augusta Savage. You see, the remarkable sculptor and activist could only celebrate her birthday once every 4 years, as she was born on this date in 1892. Despite this peculiarity, time did not forget the in-between years, the ones without birthdays, resulting in her passing away only 70 years later. The true passage of time, much like genuine Art, defies societal conventions.

Despite living in difficult times and absolute poverty, she created remarkable sculptures - symbols of social progress - without being deterred by the dystopian conditions, unlike many contemporary younger artists of today, for whom extended articles are written, approaching their generation issues. She taught art to over 1500 people, regardless of race, gender, and economic status, often without payment, juggling other jobs to support herself, occasionally assisted by art enthusiasts. It is estimated that she spoke at or organized more than 200 events in the USA and Europe addressing issues of social, racial, and gender equality. In contrast, it is not known whether she participated in any protest demanding subsidies and public appointments, as artists demand today. 

Daughter of a Methodist minister, her initial attempts at sculpting fell on deaf ears due to her father's belief that Art was sinful. She persisted in secret, and shortly before turning 30, she moved to New York where she was admitted to the Art direction of the Cooper Union School. In 1923, Savage applied for a summer art program in France and was rejected with the reason being her race. Reacting to this injustice, she embarked on one of her first public fights for equality through major newspapers in America and Europe. She sculpted portraits of socialist sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois and Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey, among others, and today is considered one of the great artists of the "Harlem Renaissance". With the help of grants from anonymous and named donors in New York and Florida, she eventually managed to attend an art school in Paris, the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, in 1929. She exhibited her work at the Grand Palais, won awards and international recognition, and traveled throughout Europe studying art and architecture.

Returning to New York during the American Great Depression, she faced tragic economic conditions in the 1930s. Nevertheless, she didn't give up. She continued her activist and artistic work, becoming the first African American woman elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. Despite her fame, she often encountered closed doors due to her gender. She founded the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts (which later evolved into the famous "Harlem Community Art Center") in the basement where she lived during the Harlem crash, teaching art to anyone interested, opening two art galleries, and three sculpture workshops with minimal resources. In 1939, the New York World's Fair commissioned her to create an original work symbolizing the event: she created a piece inspired by the song "Lift Every Voice and Sing" (known as "The Harp" in the bibliography). Due to lack of funds to transport the sculpture, it was destroyed after the fair's closure. While her work "Gamin" is part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's permanent collection, much of her work remains unclear and unrecorded. Regardless, references to her can be found in all American (and many international) Art History books that focus on this remarkable artist, dedicated teacher, and strong activist.

She passed away in 1962. She never stopped creating, and despite her finances being consistently meager, she usually donated her artworks. She lived through extraordinarily challenging times, often below the poverty line amidst one of the worst social and economic periods in the U.S., yet she never ceased to advance her social agenda through her art and actions. For over 30 years, she gave lectures and corresponded with media outlets across America on the rights of African American women. Denied the opportunity to study due to her race and to practice her art due to her gender, she was denied funding, and in the last 20 years of her life, she retired to a village where she raised and sold pigeons, chickens, and eggs to support herself while continuing to create sculptures and paintings with the help of loyal supporters and students.

Looking around me on Social Media lately, I can't help but think about the parallels of historical figures like Augusta Savage, Käthe Kollwitz, and so many others who used their works to leverage social change while living in extreme misery, societal dystopia, and adverse historical circumstances, in contrast to some contemporary Greek artists who, in their opinion, have been engaging in "social struggles" since the start of the pandemic last March.

Her birthday in February 29th 1892 could conceptually mark a milestone of Art: it highlights our mistakes and mobilizes us to correct them from time to time. They aren't born often, nor is it the aim for all artists to become the next Augusta Savage. We can't expect anyone to catalyze change for everyone with self-sacrifice, create masterpieces while living in utter misery, and fight for social progress. If we can't follow their example, let's not belittle their memory: they stood above circumstances with selflessness. They genuinely fought and produced results. Let's gain what we can, emulate as much as we can, and regard them as reference points for our self-improvement if we can. At the very least, let's not demean their memory by comparing our comfortable selves with them!

Recommended Bibliography & Sources

> AUGUSTA SAVAGE (1892-1962)
> The Guardian | Augusta Savage: the extraordinary story of the trailblazing artist, 2019
> Εργογραφία ΕΔΩ.
> Farrington, Lisa E. Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005
> Bey, Sharif (2017). "Augusta Savage: Sacrifice, Social Responsibility, and Early African American Art Education". Studies in Art Education.
> "In Her Hands: The Story of Sculptor Augusta Savage", Children's illustrated book about her life by Alan Schroeder & JaeMe Bereal.

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