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Through September 10, the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia is presenting the exhibition “A Monumental Vision,” following the artistic practice of William Edmondson, who lived from 1874-1951. Presented with support from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and organized by the Barnes’s Curator of Public Programs, James Claiborne, and Deputy Director for Collections and Exhibitions & Gund Family Chief Curator, Nancy Ireson, the first major East Coast presentation of the self-taught sculptor in decades introduces viewers to the artist’s practice within the context of African American social history, placing him as one of the most significant Black artists of the American South.
The first Black artist to be featured in a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in 1937, Edmondson came to his artistic career after an experience he described as a “divine calling.” He was led from a job as a hospital orderly to making headstones for his local Black cemeteries in Nashville, TN, and then to a creative practice that included freestanding figurative stone sculptures. Though the artist gained recognition from the MoMA exhibition and came to be a point of interest for many collectors on the East Coast at the time, his practice still fell subject to racial stereotypes and was often classified as “primitive.”
“Through this exhibition, we seek to recontextualize William Edmondson, reinstating the importance of community in his work and rejecting narratives that oversimplify his life and practice,” said Nancy Ireson. “As we highlight Edmondson’s position in art history, questions about equity in the cultural sector arise that still resonate today, making the exhibition a space for important discussions.”
On view at the Barnes Foundation are more than 60 of William Edmondson’s works, arranged by exhibition designer Yaumu Huang in a thematic display. These include his renowned series of figures like angels, animals, and other religious iconography—which bear the artist’s recognizable, signature of thick, rounded characteristics and pared-down features that are the product of carefully hand-chiseling from slabs of stone. These works (many of which have been loaned from museums and private collections like Cheekwood Estate and Gardens, the Museum of Everything, London, and the personal collection of KAWS) are accompanied by historic photographs of the artist captured by the likes of Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Edward Weston.
Joining the exhibition’s underlying narrative around the complexities of Black culture and American museums is a specially commissioned performance piece by the visual and movement artist Brendan Fernandes. The classically-trained dancer has conceived the piece Returning to Before, where a corps of dancers can be seen performing in the Barnes Foundation exhibition space throughout the run of the show, with two more days of performances taking place on August 26 and September 2. Paying homage to Edmondson’s spiritual legacy, the performance embodies the artist’s sculptures and the very physical process of chiseling and carving that was required of their production.
“This exhibition is our first to draw a holistic connection between the Barnes’s performance and exhibition programs,” said co-curator James Claiborne. “By bringing Brendan Fernandes’s performance directly into the exhibition, we hope to create new and compelling points of entry for audiences and engage visitors in an active dialogue about multifaceted Black experiences across time and place. We are excited to showcase Fernandes’s new work, Returning to Before, and witness how it brings Edmondson’s sculptures, and the stories they tell, to life in new ways.”