Lois Mailou Jones, the black artist who used African masks to counter racial stereotypes

Stephen Nartey February 28, 2023
Lois Mailou Jones/Photo credit: National Museum of Women in the Arts

Like many history makers, the Boston-based artist, Lois Mailou Jones, showed a promising future at an early age. Observing their daughter’s extraordinary abilities, her parents enrolled her at the High School of Practical Arts in 1919. She later proceeded to polish her skills at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts from 1923 to 1927, and decided to specialize in design, though the elective subjects offered were life, freehand, and perspective drawing courses.

When she graduated, she proceeded to Boston’s Design Art School, where she mastered freelance textile design. However, placing her cards on the table, she perceived she would not attain the recognition she sought for herself in the art industry. This steered her on a new path to painting, leaving her designing tools behind her as she began her journey to greatness.

At the inception of her career, she applied for a teaching job at her alma mater, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, but was however rejected because of the color of her skin. The school’s director suggested she tried her luck in the south where the black community badly needed her services. Initially hurt by the rude remarks, Lois was perturbed and quite uncertain of her next steps, but upon a cursory reflection on a lecture delivered by educator, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, she decided to give the proposal a try.

She cleverly persuaded Charlotte to create an art curriculum at Palmer Memorial Institute, a preparatory school for African American youth in Sedalia, North Carolina. When Lois took up the post from 1928 to 1930, she understood what racial segregation and discrimination meant in America’s South and wasn’t intimidated when she encountered it. Despite the odds, she moved on to establish a department of art at Palmer, which soon caught the eyes of other artists like James Herring, who gave her a job at Howard University. Over the next 47 years of her life, she was dedicated to grooming the next generation of artists like Alma Thomas, Elizabeth Catlett, and David Driskell.

Aside from teaching, Lois volunteered as an illustrator. She worked with black-owned, Associated Publishers, a subsidiary for the Study of Negro Life and History; bringing her talent to bear in designing the company’s books for children and adults between 1936 and 1965. One of her notable works is ‘Heritage,’ Which depicts an African American accomplishment. She sought to exhort black achievements with her headline banners and paid close attention to color, texture, and design.

One of her famous artistic works was ‘Africa,’ which was produced in 1935, and showcased three defined figures with chiseled features. Her work is typical of an African mask, but she had her own distinct way of making it stand out. It is believed that Lois sought to deal with racial stereotypes through her art. She also wanted her work to be a bridge through which the black community connected with their ancestry. She had the challenge that the message her art sought to communicate will be overshadowed by her race and gender, and always maintained that she wanted it viewed as a piece by an American painter who is black.

Last Edited by:Annie-Flora Mills Updated: February 28, 2023


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