Group celebrates 40 years of advancing Black women artists in Pittsburgh
Nearly two dozen Black women artists are showing work in an exhibit honoring one of Pittsburgh’s longest-running arts groups.
“Women of Visions: Celebrating 40 Years,” at the University of Pittsburgh’s University Art Gallery, marks a big anniversary for the group, which exhibit organizers believe is the oldest collective for Black women artists in the U.S.
The group was founded in 1981 to create opportunities for its members, including the simple opportunity to exhibit their work. “There was virtually nothing. Goose eggs. Double goose eggs,” said Women of Visions president Christine McCray-Bethea. “If they didn’t stand together to show on their own, it wasn’t gonna happen. So that was the impetus.”
“Celebrating 40 Years” features 50 works in all media by all 22 current Women of Visions members – including some who go back to the group’s earliest days and others who just joined.
Bethea joined about 20 years ago, around the time she began to focus on her art practice. “I think it was the idea of the camaraderie, with people that were creatives, that were women of color, with an art scene that I really hadn’t been part of,” she said.
Women of Visions has had 80 or more members over the years, said Pitt art professor Alex Taylor. Taylor, along with Janet McCall, former executive director of Contemporary Craft, taught the Pitt museum-studies students who worked with the artists to curate the show.
Current Women of Visions members include some of the biggest names on the Pittsburgh art scene, like textile artists Tina Williams Brewer and LaVerne Kemp. Former members include at least a few whose work is now known nationally and even internationally, including multidisciplinary artists Vanessa German and Renee Stout. German’s work has been exhibited around the U.S. Stout, who now lives in Washington, D.C., was the first American to exhibit in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.
Museum-studies students always organize exhibits, but this was a rare chance to work with living artists, said gallery director Sylvia Rhor.
Along with quilts by Williams Brewer and textile works by Kemp, the show includes the abstract paper creations of Jo-Anne Bates, McCray-Bethea’s sculptural assembly “Adam and Eve,” paintings by Charlotte Ka and Elizabeth Asche Douglas, and more, including ceramics and photography. The works explore themes including community, music, Black achievement, and family heritage.
McCray-Bethea wants visitors to notice the range of media and styles on display.
“I hope they really can appreciate the scope, the richness the variety, the diversity of the art, which is as diverse as the people themselves. And they’ll see there’s not this monolithic view of African-American art,” she said.
“It’s like, ‘Black people do watercolor too!’” she added, laughing. “We’ve got every medium represented in that show.”
The gallery’s spacious rotunda highlights a special project: Women of Visions member Ashley A. Jones’ portraits of about 200 Black women on brown-paper lunch bags. The bags reference the “brown-paper-bag test,” once used as a means of discrimination based on skin tone. The display includes portraits of all current group members, interspersed with a quotation from writer Audre Lorde.
Rhor noted that the exhibit is not organized by artist; rather, the works by different artists mingle throughout the several rooms.
“I think the notion of collective is very, very important,” she said. “We try to stress the individuality of each of the artists, but we also want to think of them as a collective that works together to advance the art of Black women particularly in Pittsburgh but even further.”
McCray-Bethea said that while Women of Visions is still going strong, Black women artists have more opportunities for exhibitions these days. “People are interested, and they are coming to us now,” she said.
The University Art Gallery is located in the Frick Fine Arts Building, on Schenley Plaza. The gallery has limited hours, and visitors who do not have Pitt ID are asked to make an appointment. More information is here.
“Women of Visions: Celebrating 40 Years” continues through Feb. 25.