Editor’s note: Today on Women at the Center, Wendy Ikemoto, Associate Curator for American Art at New-York Historical Society, sits down with Center for Women’s History college intern Juan Diego Jaramillo for a conversation about our current show, Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman (on view through July 28).

Andrew Herman (active 1930s–1940s), Augusta Savage with her sculpture Realization, 1938. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, Photographs and Prints Division.

Juan Diego Jaramillo: What would you say Savage’s life and work contribute to the overlapping stories we are telling here at New-York Historical Society?

Wendy Ikemoto: Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman is one of several exhibitions in our Equality and Justice for All initiative.  The initiative began with Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow, continued with Betye Saar: Keepin’ It Clean, and now extends further with this show and with Stonewall 50.  In my opinion, this initiative is extraordinarily important for New-York Historical. It speaks to an institutional commitment to highlighting the long and continuing struggle toward civil rights in the United States.   

Augusta Savage working on Lift Every Voice and Sing. Manuscripts and Archives Division, the New York Public Library (as featured in Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman). 

JDJ: Tragically, much of Savage’s work has been lost, and she spent the end of her life in relative obscurity. How important was it for you to curate a show that doesn’t dwell on the tragedy of what is missing and instead celebrates Savage and reaffirms her role in the many strands of history she influenced?

WI: I served as organizing curator for the exhibition at New-York Historical, but it is a traveling show organized by the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens and curated by Jeffreen M. Hayes.  The way I see it — and the way I try to frame it on my tours — the exhibition is about both loss and celebration. One of our docents described Savage’s life and career as at once tragic and triumphant.  I think that’s apt, and it speaks to a duality we tried to express in our show. The opening sculpture — The Diving Boy — is one of only about twelve bronze sculptures Savage created. The closing sculpture — Lift Every Voice and Sing — is a souvenir replica of a monumental work in plaster that Savage created but lacked the funds to cast in bronze and to store.  I think Savage has to be understood both in terms of her extraordinary success as a sculptor, activist, and educator, and also in terms of the way she has been lost to history because of socio-economic challenges and institutional biases against her race and gender.      

A bronze souvenir replica of Augusta Savage’s Lift Every Voice and Sing purchased at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. University of North Florida, Thomas G. Carpenter Library, Special Collections and Archives, Eartha M. M. White Collection.

JDJ: Savage partook in the Harlem Renaissance through her sculptures and the mentorship she provided both burgeoning artists and the Harlem community at large, and the exhibit contextualizes Savage’s work with pieces by some of her contemporaries and students. Having such a rich corpus to work with, how did you decide upon those pieces? Do those chosen speak in some way to Savage’s influence or her own artistic approach? And do you have any favorites?

WI: As I’m the organizing curator for New-York Historical, I didn’t play a role in this;  Jeffreen M. Hayes at the Cummer Museum made the selection of objects. Four of my favorite works by other artists in the show are Jacob Lawrence’s The 1920’s…The Migrants Cast Their Ballots, Ernest Crichlow’s Harriet, William Artis’ A Mother’s Love, and Selma Burke’s Sadness

William Artis (1914–1977), A Mother’s Love, 1963. Atlanta University Art Collection

JDJ: Savage’s busts stand as representations of African-American people made by an African-American woman at a time before many such artists were nationally recognized. Aside from their historic dimension though, they also assert themselves as emotive and subtle sculptural objects. What, if anything, do you think Savage’s sculptures can contribute to our present questions regarding representation in art and media.

WI: I’ll have to think more about this question. What I can say right now is that several visitors and colleagues have expressed to me how intimate and personable Savage’s portraits feel–how they pull the viewer in.  

Augusta Savage, Gamin, c. 1930. Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, Jacksonville, Florida

JDJ: Given the massive popularity of Lift Every Voice and Sing at the World’s Fair, one has to wonder whether if it had it been cast in bronze and permanently displayed somewhere, it might have dramatically changed Savage’s fortunes and lent her a more visible presence in history upon her death. The piece and its title put forward the idea that every individual experience ought to be accounted for and harmonized in order for progress to occur. Did you find the piece relevant to your work not only on the Savage exhibit but also in curation in general?

WI: I think that’s a thoughtful way of interpreting the lyrics of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and the title of Savage’s work.  It brings us back to the earlier question about Savage’s story in the context of the New-York Historical Society. One could say that our Equality and Justice for All initiative is trying to accomplish just what you, the song, and Savage’s work all describe: lifting every voice, every individual experience, perhaps not necessarily to harmonize, but at least to inspire thought and prompt discussion.

Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman is on view through July 28, 2019.

Top Photo Credits: Augusta Savage working on Lift Every Voice and Sing. Manuscripts and Archives Division, the New York Public Library (detail).