The Harlem Rennaisance movement in the 1920s became one of the historic expressions of the black experience. Founded as a literary and musical expressionist movement around the experiences of black people, the movement bequeathed to us geniuses and their works. Black artist Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller anticipated this development with her sculpture Ethiopia Awakening otherwise known as Ethiopia (1914).
Created at the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance, Ethiopia is widely considered the first Pan-African American work of art. The sculpture depicts a woman whose lower half is wrapped like a mummy, with the head of a beautiful African woman wearing an ancient Egyptian queen’s headdress. Fuller was not only giving the world a beautiful representation of the black body with this significant piece but was also awakening blacks to the “awareness of anti-colonialism and nationhood.”
At the time the sculpture was created, the only African nation that had successfully maintained its independence against European imperialists was Ethiopia. Fuller therefore sought to celebrate Africa and the qualities of an emerging African-American society while delivering a message of hope with her piece.
With a career spanning over 70 years, the pioneering sculptor, artist, and poet focused on positive self-image for African Americans through her sculptoral works in clay, bronze and plaster. Interestingly, Fuller had shied away from specializing in African American themes in her work, feeling that would limit her. Even when one of her mentors, W.E.B. DuBois, suggested that to her, she rejected it until she finally embraced the idea, becoming one of the most important chroniclers of the black experience within America.
But Fuller didn’t become a celebrated black artist without difficulties. Born June 9, 1877, in a middle-class neighborhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Fuller loved arts right from childhood. After high school, she earned a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Museum and School for Industrial Art which she attended for three years but by 1899, she had to leave Philadelphia for Paris as she found no ideal place for herself or for her work despite winning a major art competition in school.
In Paris, she attempted to join a women’s youth hostel for students, called the American Girls Club, but the club refused to take her in because of her race. The club’s director however helped her find a room to stay in and introduced her to American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. With Saint-Gaudens’ help, Fuller, within the first year in Paris, started studying drawing while visiting museums and attending lectures at Académie des Beaux-Arts.
By the 1900s, she had begun carving a niche for herself in arts in the city, after having met black greats like Thomas J. Calloway, Alonzo Herndon, and DuBois, all of whom had come to Paris to participate in the Paris Universal Exposition in 1900. She eventually found a mentor in French sculptor Augustin Rodin who inspired her to be more daring in her works. By 1903 when she left Paris to America, the French press had already named her “the delicate sculptor of horrors” as she moved away from decorative and graceful art pieces to spine-chilling ones that depicted the usual dark realities of African-American life.
Then widely known, her works, including “The Wretched” and “The Impenitent Thief”, were exhibited in many galleries in Paris. But her return to America didn’t seem pleasing at first. Resettling in Philadelphia, Fuller was snubbed by members of the local art scene and her neighbors because of her race.
And then the worse happened in 1910 when the warehouse in which she kept her tools for work, as well as her pieces from her days in France, was destroyed in a mysterious fire outbreak. Though the fire quelled her desire to sculpt and she began focusing on strengthening her family as a wife and mother, it didn’t take too long for Fuller to return to her passion.
Despite the difficulties, Fuller, who was the first African-American woman to receive a U.S. government commission, continued to exhibit at major events and venues, including the 1921 America’s Making Exhibition, and the Boston Public Library. She had then begun speaking against the spate of lynching incidents targeting blacks in America through her sculpture of Mary Turner, a pregnant black woman who was lynched in Georgia in 1918 after protesting the lynching of her husband.
And in spite of her many revolutionary works of the African-American experience, Ethiopia Awakening remains one of her most famous pieces. The allegorical sculpture is today seen as an extension of the work of one of her mentors, Henry O. Tanner, who was the most prominent and accomplished African-American artist of his time.
As Michael Harris writes in the “Art of the African Diaspora”, Fuller’s “work, like that of Edmonia Lewis, suggested African themes and used Egypt as a synonym for Africa.”
“With Ethiopia Awakening, however, the focus of Fuller’s work moved beyond slave or plantation references toward a pan-African imagination,” Harris notes.
“She linked the growing self-consciousness and self-confidence of African Americans with global trends, and her implication that racial identity was the equivalent of national identity as a means for unity in a common cause reflected the ideas of W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963), an eminent African American intellectual and one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).”