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15 Mar 2016
Women's History Month: Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller - The Delicate Sculptor of Horrors

Women's History Month: Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller - The Delicate Sculptor of Horrors

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Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller was a pioneering sculptor, artist, and poet, most often associated with the Harlem Renaissance of the early 1900s. In reality, Fuller embodied many of the concepts at the heart of the Renaissance long before the movement gained momentum, and is often credited with stimulating the period’s Afrocentrism and focus on positive self-image for African Americans.

Born into a middle class family in a well-established black community in Philadelphia, the daughter of two successful business-owners and granddaughter of an escaped slave, the young Fuller occupied a rare social space. Suspended between the unusual privilege that afforded her an education and support network, and the close-at-hand knowledge of her family’s past. As a black woman, with a still tenuous place in society, she was uniquely positioned to depict the African-American experience.

This is not to say that either her career or her life were untouched by difficulty: finding no real place for herself or her work in Philadelphia — despite having beaten off fierce competition to win a coveted art school scholarship — Fuller left for Paris, where she was refused lodging at the American Women’s Club because of her race. Despite this setback, she worked hard to establish herself in the city, and soon gained a reputation as an independent and culturally sophisticated artist, eventually finding a mentor in Auguste Rodin.

Unfortunately, her return to America marked a downturn in Fuller’s fortunes. Upon resettling in Philadelphia, she was shunned by members of the local art scene for her race, and was subject to prejudice from neighbours and members of her church. A particularly devastating blow came in 1910, when the warehouse in which she kept her tools and almost the entirety of her work, including pieces from her time in France, burnt down under suspicious circumstances, leaving her emotionally bereft.

Nevertheless, Fuller became the first African-American woman to receive a U.S. government commission, and continued to exhibit at important venues and events, including the 1921 America’s Making Exhibition, and the Boston Public Library. She was also famously unwilling to resort to so-called “feminine”, or otherwise more palatable themes in her work. In a rare and startling act of independence on the part of a female artist, she instead chose to adopt gruesome imagery to depict the often dark realities of African American life, leading the French press to award her the moniker “the delicate sculptor of horrors”.

Most crucially, she rebelled against hitherto accepted depictions of African Americans in the visual arts. The triumphant Ethiopia Awakening, one of her most famous pieces, is particularly celebrated as a representation of the common past of America’s black citizens. Symbolising a rebirth of racial pride and Afrocentric consciousness, the statue stands tall and proud as an unashamedly beautiful representation of the black body and a groundbreaking step towards self-love. Alternately horrifying and affirmative, despairing and inspiring, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller’s work is often difficult to apprehend, but always crucial, forever marking her as one of the most important chroniclers of the black experience within the context of America.