Women’s History Month: Zilia Sánchez’s “Mural in Cement”

To commemorate Women’s History Month, The Phillips Collection will be celebrating female and female identifying artists during the entire month of March. Zilia Sánchez: Soy Isla (I Am an Island)—the Cuban artist’s first museum retrospective—is on view at The Phillips Collection February 16-May 19, 2019.

Laguna Gardens building with mural by Zilia Sánchez

Laguna Gardens building with mural by Zilia Sánchez

Essentially an architectural painting, Zilia Sánchez’s Mural in Cement, created in 1971, is a modular, relief-like structure built on the facades of two condominium buildings in Laguna Gardens, a housing complex near San Juan, Puerto Rico. Using fiberglass molds that she fills with cement, Sánchez creates the mural’s abstract bodily forms and paints them white, similar to her erotic topologies. Commissioned by Henry Gutierrez, a Cuban architect-developer living in Puerto Rico, the project enables her to continue making art and to settle on the island.

Sánchez says of her mural: “I have always been interested in architecture and wanted to study it. I started taking courses in linear drawing at the university, where they focused a lot on mathematical constructions. However, when the Revolution happened and the university closed, I never got to pursue an architectural career. But yes, I really liked it. When I was in Puerto Rico I made a mural in Laguna Gardens and planned it myself. I even made the molds, first out of canvas and then turned them into concrete. My paintings have an architectural element as well: the three dimensionality. The affinity to architecture is something that has always been inside me, it is something instinctive.”

Detail of mural

Detail of mural

Zilia Sánchez standing next to her mural

Zilia Sánchez standing next to her mural

Blacks in Government (BIG) Visit the Phillips During Black History Month

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel no. 27: Many men stayed behind until they could take their families north with them., 1940-41, Casein tempera on hardboard 12 x 18 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1942 © 2016 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

This month, Chief Diversity Officer Makeba Clay hosted 40 participants from the US Government Accountability Office’s chapter of the Blacks in Government (BIG) Affinity Group. Having chosen “Migration” as the overarching theme for their Black History Month celebrations, BIG members thought seeing panels from Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series (1940–41) at the Phillips would be the perfect activity.

Senior Curator Elsa Smithgall led guests through a guided tour and discussion about Lawrence’s journey, fleshing out notable details about his life and work. For example, many were surprised to learn that Lawrence began by writing all 60 captions before painting each accompanying board with the help of his wife, artist Gwendolyn Knight. As the group made their way around the room, they connected many of the issues that Lawrence captured in the 1940s to several issues still prevalent today. In the words of one participant, “It’s still present day.”

Clay also made connections to the artwork, sharing personal stories about her family and asking the group to determine which panel might hold the most significance for her (see above). Everyone left expressing deep gratitude for an afternoon that resonated in ways that seemed to uplift the crowd. One guest summed it up this way: “I don’t typically go to museums, but coming with a group and having a guide, with the chance to hear from others, was really impactful.”

To learn more about Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and the accompanying educational resources, click here.

By Gia Harewood

Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence’s “Running Horse”

"Running Horse", Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, 1999, Etching and acquatint on paper, 18 1/4 x 18 in., Gift of the Francine Seders Gallery, 2001; © 2016 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, Running Horse, 1999, Etching and acquatint on paper, 18 1/4 x 18 in., Gift of the Francine Seders Gallery, 2001; © 2016 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence’s work focused on narrative paintings depicting the life, culture, and history of African Americans, through still life, portraits, and urban scenes. The majority of her career produced oil portraits of friends, figure studies of dancers, and watercolor and gouache landscapes. However, her work began to shift in the 1990s incorporating lyrical depictions of animals through etchings and monoprints. Her inspiration came from spontaneous responses to her surroundings, as well as African dance, sculpture, and theater.