Bill Traylor’s Beauty Through Black Femininity
“Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum showcases an extensive collection of drawings primarily scratched on scrap cardboard by African-American artist Bill Traylor, characterized by the Smithsonian Institution to be the only significant artist to produce works out of slavery. The exhibition which occupies approximately three individual spaces includes work spanning from the 1930s till his death in 1949, as well as biographical content on the chronology of his life; from his birth into slavery and emancipation into sharecropping, to the beginning of artistic production in his late eighties. Although a majority of his work explores male subjects (possibly depictions of himself), as well as snakes, birds, dogs, and other domestic animals, his depictions of women (however few) distinguish themselves conceptually and visually in his use of color and pattern.
The greater part of Traylor’s early works depict men in limited color palettes, often monochromatic silhouettes with sharp features in profile and distinguished at most by a hat or cane. These figures are depicted engaged in domestic work, alcoholism, and conflicting spiritual and societal hierarchies. They are rugged and solemn, depicting the sorrows and passive hostility of everyday life. His drawings of women, however, are more consistent with portraiture in terms of composition; a singular central subject in a full body frontal position, head still in profile with the head shape adjusted with the implied femininity of hair. A greater amount of attention is paid to the female figure’s garmentry both in form and color, with vibrant assortments of red, blue, brown, and black that adorn a solid upper garment and an intricately patterned skirt. Unlike the previous, these drawings exude a sense of serenity, dignity, and beauty.
Having been married to three different women with whom he’s presumed to have fathered upwards of 20 children, these strong women were his partners in domesticity; raising his children as well as suffering the labored lifestyle of a sharecropper, yet still empowered and distinguished by their femininity. These women are strong and assertive, serving as the supporting pillar of their household and providing stability for an otherwise fragile and conflicted male figure. In a collection of strained and disheartened depictions of blackness, Bill Traylor’s drawings of female subjects provide a glimpse into the strong and resolute beauty of blackness through a lens of black womanhood.