I Will Be A Witness: Bessie Harvey and Alternative Legacies in American Feminist Art

All artwork photographs shared with the permission of Bessie Harvey’s children.

Bessie Harvey was a 20th-century sculptor working with found materials to create multi-media assemblages. The complexity of her portfolio offers a challenge to the preconceived notions of what a vernacular artist from the Black American South is, as she confronted prevailing art culture and social expectations in a manner authentically her own. By the time of her death at age 65 in the mid-1990s, Harvey established herself as an unconventional figure in the contemporary art field, challenging the limitations of the White patriarchy as she inculcated her diasporic legacy into her artworks. With her ear to the ground and her finger to the pulse of her people, Harvey confronted the oppression she witnessed in her life as a Black woman in America. In the process of doing so, Harvey produced a highly sophisticated body of work rich in critical narratives far beyond that which was recognized during her lifetime.

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Despite the evident connections between her work and Black feminist thought, the marginalization of autodidact artists from the art historical record diminishes and devalues the contributions of Harvey, whose body of work rivals that of any widely proclaimed and praised feminist artist. While she herself did not self-ascribe this title, within her oeuvre it is evident that Harvey seeks often to inculcate her diasporic legacy into her artworks while maintaining her contemporary identity and inadvertently challenging the limitations of the White patriarchy. Within the development of Black feminist thought, “Black women intellectuals” exist within a wide range of levels of education. In the words of Patricia Collins, “all U.S. Black women who somehow contribute to Black feminist thought as critical social theory are deemed to be ‘intellectuals.’”

Fig. 1: Bessie Harvey, “Birthing” (1986). Painted wood, beads, rhinestones, sequins, glitter and nail. 9 1/2 x 35 3/4 x 17 7/8 inches. Collection of Smithsonian American Art Museum: Museum purchase and gift of Estelle E. Friedman

Sculptor Bessie Harvey’s 1986 found wood assemblage, “Birthing” (Fig. 1), is one of the most vivid examples of her incredible gift of animism: the recognition of the soul or spirit of an inanimate object. The body of the woman that Harvey reveals within the wood arcs her back in pain, limbs splayed, muscles curled in agony as her labor nears its reward. Her gaze fixes beyond the spectator with determination to deliver her child. Her infant’s head emerges from the vulva between her legs, caked with red glittering blood, eyes wide open as they enter the world. “Birthing” exemplifies the convergence of female empowerment and Harvey’s lived experience of bearing eleven children. In the emancipatory act of refusing to be defined solely by her maternity, Harvey rejects one of the most common social expectations of womanhood that feminist theory also identifies as a source of inequality within patriarchal society.

The steadfast stereotype of the salacious Black woman is one that has permeated history from the early 17th century to the present, the attributes of such being “seductive, alluring, worldly, beguiling, tempting, and lewd,”  framing Black women as hypersexualized predators seeking to corrupt White men. Such conceptions predate the Antebellum South and find origins in the 17th-century racial ethnocentrism of White European travelers, whose projections and misinterpretations of African cultures bring them to establish anti-Black sexual archetypes.

Fig. 2: Bessie Harvey, “Jezebel” (c. 1987). Wood, jewelry, shells, glitter, beads, nails, paint, spray paint, 50.5 x 44.5 x 34”. Collection of Philadelphia Museum of Art: Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

Denoted by the name Jezebel, this portrayal of Black women reflects in the homonymous title of Harvey’s 1987 sculpture (Fig. 2). A tall, thin female figure holds her arms outstretched, as if searching for something to hold onto, for someone to save her from her fate. Her expression is frozen in shock, her eyes open wide in both surprise and fear as she is devoured by the dogs at her feet. Her torso, headpiece, and limbs reflect Harvey’s signature animism to further express small faces and lives entirely of their own, indicative of the generations of Black women who are subjected to sexual victimization by White men. They, too, perish along with Jezebel.

Fig. 3: Bessie Harvey, “Seven Faces Of Eve” (c. 1987). Found wood, jewelry, cowrie shells, paint, spray paint, 33.75 x 13 x 18”. Collection of Baltimore Museum of Art: Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

The 1987 found wood sculpture “Seven Faces Of Eve” (Fig. 3) references another infamous female figure of the Bible — the first woman to walk the earth, Eve. The first woman is regarded as a monstrous figure, for she commits the terminal sin of disobedience against God and her husband. Thus, the tale of Eve’s time spent in the Garden of Eden is an admonition of the fate that will befall any and all who challenge the expectation of subservience and seek to rise above their oppression. Such provocation, therefore, exists when one dares to question their positioning in the world.

Harvey did just that when she divorced her husband in 1968. Terminating her marriage and relocating her eleven children over 300 miles away was the ultimate act of defiance and independence, for in the year 1968, the divorce rate per 1,000 was just 2.9. To divorce and take on the financial responsibility of rearing nearly a dozen children was, and continues to be, unthinkable for most, especially without a stable income. However, born into a world defined by patriarchy, where the agony of childbearing, subjugation, and fatality already exist, there is no additional curse for Harvey to bear; she has nothing more to lose than that which Eve already had in the Bible story.

Fig. 4: Bessie Harvey, “Black Horse of Revelations” (c. 1985). Polychromed wood, mixed media, 57 x 44 x 9”. Collection of American Folk Art Museum: Gift of Avalie Saperstein in memory of Elyse Saperstein.

Within Harvey’s 1985 polychromed wood and mixed media sculpture, “Black Horse of Revelations” (Fig. 4), the Biblical figure is brought to life. With the representation of Eurocentric beauty norms in the form of the blonde wig, juxtaposed with the mockery of the minstrel blackface, Harvey determines the Black Horse of Revelations is not a reflection of a famine of dietary nourishment, but of respect towards the Black female body. For centuries, the natural features of Black bodies are ridiculed by caricatures within minstrel representations, dehumanizing an entire race of people whilst simultaneously shaming Black people on an individualized level to internalize racism and uphold White beauty standards. Living in a world that consistently reminds you that you are less than for reasons beyond your control, the color of your skin and the texture of your hair, produces a longing for whiteness that smothers the perception of beauty within Blackness.

Reflecting on the impact of racism on the psyche of members of the African Diaspora, Harvey explains: 

The black man is about the weakest man on earth according to what God said for man to be like. But he’s not really like that. He’s always had to wear a disguise. He has never been free to really be himself. Even in Africa… Everything has been taken away from them that God blessed them with… [they have] had to wear disguises all their lives. 

Through “Black Horse of Revelations,” Harvey produces a feminist narrative in which the instilled worship of whiteness will lead to the apocalypse for the Black identity.

Fig. 5: Bessie Harvey, “God’s Gift To Man” (c. 1987). Found wood, found materials, paint, spray paint, 47 x 42 x 20”. Collection of Brooklyn Museum: Gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

The diversity of women displayed within this work (Fig. 5), of varying skin tones, hair textures, and body shapes, reflects Harvey’s exploration of the full range of experiences and identities of Black women; for, as Leslie King-Hammond observed, “Harvey’s sculpture is always black — her visions are only of ‘olive brown or darker’ faces.” Albeit there is certainly an inheritance of oppression that exists for people of the African diaspora in the United States, one cannot claim universally that all Black American women identify it. This inheritance is integral to the positioning of the collective experience of Black women in the States, but as unique individuals they can neither have the identical experience nor interpretation. In fact, to quote Patricia Hill Collins, “expressing a collective, self-defined Black feminist consciousness is problematic precisely because dominant groups have a vested interest in suppressing such thought.” Thus, one must account for all perspectives, producing a diverse response to commonalities within Black feminism.


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Source: Hyperallergic.com

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