The Spelman College Museum of Fine Art is located in Atlanta, GA on the Spelman College campus. The museum features art created by Black women from across the Black diaspora. It’s actually promoted as being the only museum in America showcasing art by women from the African diaspora. Spelman College is all-women and one of the historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) in America. So it’s quite fitting that the museum is housed on the Spelman campus and features art by Black women.
The Spelman Museum is referred to as a museum. But, you should prepare yourself for the reality that it’s quite small. I’m not an art aficionado but when I think of a museum, I imagine a large building with a lot of pieces on display that would take a few hours to get through. There’s a fair amount of work within the space but it’s not what I would consider a museum. At its current size, it’s probably more accurately described as a gallery. This doesn’t take anything away from the quality of the art or the space but sets realistic expectations before you visit.
The Spelman Museum is a beautiful space within a building that houses other offices and rooms. When you walk through the doors you’re greeted by a welcome desk with pamphlets about the art on display as well as a donation box.
During the time that I visited, there was a temporary exhibit featuring the work of Amy Sherald. Sherald is notable for her portraits of African-Americans and creating the official portrait of Former First Lady Michelle Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.
I don’t think that I was previously aware of Sherald or her work but I was really amazed by it. Her paintings are quite different. The artwork features Black people, many of the pieces featured Black women in particular. She uses grayscale for flesh so the subjects’ skin color isn’t actually brown. I used my cell phone camera to snap the photos and I think it’s white balance / warmth settings might have had some issues. To my eyes, the photographs added a little bit of yellow to their skin tone which made the subject’s skin look brown rather than the gray you see in person.
Many paintings by other artists have subdued backgrounds with less detail so the subject or items in the foreground standout and catch your eye. But, Sherald’s paintings feature a solid bright vibrant color as the background. And the subject in the foreground is usually dressed in vividly colored clothing. Yet, the subject’s skin is subdued. This contrast and reversal of sorts is incredibly striking and draws the eye. It was pretty cool and different from the art that I’m used to seeing.
There are light blues, reds, pinks, etc set against the portrait subject who has gray skin. And then on top of that you have them posed with colorful dresses, jeans, and other articles of clothing. The subject’s skin is quite subdued compared to the color of the canvas and of their clothing.You have all of this color around the subject but they’re quite often the darkest thing on the canvas. Their skin is gray but there are still highlights and shadows so it’s not flat and there’s a lot of detail so everything looks very lifelike.
There was one portrait that I thought was absolutely dope called, “Mama Has Made the Bread.” The portrait is black and white or in this case gray and white with a bright pink background. The subject is a woman who is wearing a pair of large gold earrings that are the only bit of color aside from the background. Some of the other paintings have some colorful item of clothing but the subject in this painting is pretty much all black, gray and white. The gold earrings are the only item in the foreground that has any color to it.
The woman is standing in the center of the canvas with her hand on her hip in what I would describe as a jaunty pose. She’s wearing a fur wrap with a patterned black and white dress. But, there’s so much detail in the way the dress is painted that you can see the pleats so the pattern doesn’t look flat. You can imagine that there’s a little hint of wind blowing or she’s just moved into this position and her dress was captured in motion.
There’s also this bad fur wrap that looks so soft and smooth. It’s a flat painting but there’s texture to it. Obviously you can’t touch it and if you did it would probably feel like paint on a canvas. But, you look at it and your eye tricks you into imagining that it would feel so soft. The little brush strokes in the fur makes it look like the wrap is made of these individual little hairs.
There’s even a lot of detail when you look at the subject’s face. She has a short boy cut not quite a fade but it’s really cute. And there’s amazing detailing in her lips, nose, and eyes so she looks like a real person. Look at the ears and there are realistic folds in her earlobes. She doesn’t have any legs but she looks like she could step off the canvas. I love interesting work like that. It was just amazing.
The skin in all of Sherald’s paintings on display are grayscale but somehow it didn’t seem weird. It’s like if someone drew with pencil but they fully shaded in the face, hands, and any other flesh showing. This skin isn’t brown like you’d expect but the level of detail makes everyone look normal so the gray shade isn’t distracting. It blends into the painting and is easy to overlook set against the solid but bright backgrounds.
There’s so much color and contrast in the paintings that they all pop. Having the subjects be gray could have resulted in boring dreary paintings. But, there’s so much energy because you have these bright backgrounds combined with the bold patterns and bright colors of the subject’s clothes. I thought that was really, really dope.
Amy Sherald’s work really drew me in. I wasn’t previously aware of the artist but I’m a fan now.
The other side of the museum featured paintings, figurines, quilts, and a variety of pieces from other artists. Based on the layout, I assume that the permanent collection is housed on one side of the museum and they probably rotate the pieces on display. The Amy Sherald exhibition is on display until May 19th and definitely worth checking out.
To be clear, while the museum is small, it’s size is not a drawback. The recommended donation amount is three dollars and parking is about another dollar. It’s cheap enough to visit a few times per year to see new special exhibitions. For less than five bucks you can visit a museum that houses some dope artwork. It’s an opportunity to see art by not just the Black female artists in their permanent collection but fresh new work every few months. If you visit during the spring and go back in the summer, half of the museum would probably consist of different pieces. That’s not even taking into account that their stuff from their permanent collection probably rotates as well.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The artwork that was on display was breathtaking. I highly recommend visiting the museum if you have a chance, especially if it’s before the end of the Amy Sherald exhibition. The art is interesting and different. The Spelman Museum is a great way to discover art that features people who might look like you and by artists who may be less well-known to the mainstream.
- The Center for Civil and Human Rights
- The Memorial for Peace and Justice
- The Legacy Museum
- Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
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