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Really Beautiful, Really Lasting

The Cummer Museum mounts a retrospective of Augusta Savage’s art and legacy

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In an age when totally corrupt powers that be are planning to try to legislate humans out of existence, representation matters more than ever.

The idea of representation (especially in arts and culture) is not a new one. But it does seem to be getting a renewed airing thanks to dedicated artists, curators and writers who seek to challenge the status quo, especially inside museum spaces.

Sculptor Augusta Savage was a pivotal member of the Harlem Renaissance. Perhaps more important, she was a singular American artist whose legacy of vision, bravery and teaching, married to a superlative mastery of the human form, quietly undergirds many of the recent discussions around the interlaced issues of progress, institutional racism, inclusion and representation.

Walking into Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman at The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, the viewer is met with The Diving Boy (1939). “Due to the high cost of casting, few of Savage’s full-sized works still exist today, making [it] an exceptional piece” wrote Jeffreen M. Hayes, Ph.D., the show’s curator, in the accompanying catalog.

The boy, who eagerly peers over his crossed hands in a manner that suggests he’s gathering strength (to make the leap) and courage (how cold is that water anyway?), was once in Ninah Cummer’s personal collection.

Savage’s career is defined by much more than her surviving art works, however. In many ways, it is her legacy, an object lesson in amplifying the voices and visions of artists of color, that acts as a lodestar from which artists and art professionals can learn. “So much of her career is tied to education,” said Hayes “[but] so many of us don’t know the role that she played. That was really important for us. How do we really center her?”

It’s well-documented that Savage was born in (1892) and spent her early years in Green Cove Springs. Her family later moved to West Palm Beach (1915); following that, she spent a brief period in Jacksonville (circa 1920) before moving to New York City where she studied at the Cooper Union School of Art (1921), completing the four-year course of study in three years. From there, she studied in France (1929-’31) and then in 1932, opened the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts where, because of her skills and capacity for teaching, she became a luminary in the Harlem Renaissance. (Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight were among her students.) Later, after the success she experienced at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, she opened the Salon of Contemporary Negro Art (c. 1940).

This too-brief, truncated look at Savage’s life does not do her work justice or appropriately illustrate the obstacles she was forced to overcome in order to create. As a child, she faced resistance at home, from a father who wanted to “beat the art out of her” for making “graven images.” As an adult, she faced a society willing to deny her humanity and to sacrifice her dreams upon the altar of Whiteness.

“I hear so many complaints to the effect that Negroes do not take advantage of the educational opportunities offered them. Well, one of the reasons why more of my race do not go in for higher education is that as soon as one of us gets his head above the crowd, there are millions of feet ready to crush it back again to that dead level of commonplace thus creating a racial deadline of culture in our Republic. For how am I to compete with other American artists if I am not to be given the same opportunity?”

Savage made that above statement in the wake of her disinvitation to study at the Fontainebleau School of Fine Arts in France, near Paris, in 1923. The artist had been accepted to matriculate at Fontainebleau. However, the American admissions committee decided that because of her race—lest she make her white peers feel uncomfortable—Savage could not study there. It was, they assured her, “for her own good.”

Though she later was able to study in France, it seems clear that this left an indelible mark on her soul. It is tempting to speculate that this rejection was the seed for future community and gallery projects.

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