John Edmonds’s Engagement with the African Past, African American Present, and Collective Future

Ariana Kaye, The Phillips Collection Sherman Fairchild Fellow 2020-2021, on John Edmonds

On December 15, I had the pleasure of hearing artist John Edmonds talk about his work. In conversation with Dr. Ashley James, the two discussed how Edmonds’s work aims to show how Black people style themselves (or “self-fashion”) and his connection to both African art and to historically white and European art.

Tête d’Homme (2018) (at the Whitney Museum of American Art) and Hood II (2016) (gifted to The Phillips Collection in 2018) exemplify some of the key points that Edmonds talked about during the conversation. Both of these works are photographs. Edmonds emphasized the role that photography has had and still has in authentically or inauthentically portraying Black subjects. In the 19th century and earlier, photography was used to exploit Black people and present them as “others.” In Edmonds’s work, he seeks to reclaim objectifying photography and portrays Black subjects in empowering and true representations. 

LEFT: Pablo Picasso, Tête d’Homme, 1907, Oil on canvas, Merion, Lincoln University, Barnes Foundation; RIGHT: John Edmonds, Tête d’Homme, 2018, Archival pigment photograph, 24 × 30 in., Courtesy of the artist and Company, New York

The French Tête d’Homme, translated to English as “Head of a Man,” references the types of titles that European artists like Picasso would use to title their works, most often inspired by African masks that they collected. By using the title, Edmonds seeks to reclaim the French and art historical linguistic use of the title, and show a head of a real man who is Blackwith a work of art that connects him to his own ancestral past, in order to tell his own story about what the object he is presented with means to him.  

Edmonds also collects African masks and figurines in order to investigate where they come from and which African tribe they could possibly belong to. He usually purchases the objects from different street vendors in New York City. He is not worried about the “authenticity” of the objects, but more about what they represent, that they have all been loved by generations of families and ancestors who appreciated them and used them for different aesthetic and ceremonial purposes. 

John Edmonds, Untitled (Hood 2), 2016, Archival pigment print, 20 x 14 in., The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vittorio Gallo, 2018

While masks were used as forms of adornment in earlier centuries, according to Edmonds the new form of that is the hood, the sweatshirt, or the du-rag serving as a mode of selffashioning for Black people today. The hood is seen in Hood IIfrom a series of photographs he started in 2016. We cannot see the face or gender of the person, also representing the universality of the hood—it does not have a gender. Many of Edmonds’s subjects are gender non-conforming individuals, and he believes that creating a society in which these people can live their truth is essential to being modern.  

Dr. James exemplified John Edmonds’s work perfectly during the talk with her remark: “Let’s bring the Black body that caused all the conversation back into the conversation.” In Edmonds’s work, the Black body is the center of the conversation, reclaiming the Black past, present and future 

What is your vision for future Black representation? 

To hear more from John Edmonds, listen to his Conversations with Artists event at the Phillips in 2019:

Phillips at Home: Home for the Holidays

Hello from Donna Jonte, your Phillips at Home host. Thanks for spending time with me and works of art from The Phillips Collection, slowing down to look, think, wonder, and respond creatively. Let’s go home for the holidays with artist Charles Demuth!

Materials: coloring supplies (markers, color pencils, crayons), scissors, glue, printer

Charles Demuth, Red Chimneys, 1918, Watercolor and graphite pencil on medium-weight, medium-textured, off-white, wove paper, 10 1/8 x 14 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1925


Look carefully at this work of art by Charles Demuth. What do you notice? Do you see straight lines? Curved lines? What shapes do you see? What colors do you see? Why might Demuth have focused on the roofs of the houses?

Use a pencil or crayon (and your imagination) to extend this picture using the template and draw a house that you want to live in.  What will your house look like? Will your house look like something in your dreams? Will you use straight or wavy lines? What shapes might your doors and windows be? What might you add to the roof, the house, and the yard?

When you have finished drawing your house, add yourself to the picture. Where will you be?


Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1899, photograph by Ferdinand Demuth

Charles Demuth (American, 1883-1935) was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. When he was not traveling to New York City; Provincetown, Massachusetts; or Paris, he lived in his family home, which is now The Demuth Museum. Young Charles was inspired by the view from his windows. He liked the geometric shapes in the city’s skyline, especially the church steeples. So did his father, Ferdinand Demuth, an amateur photographer. Here is one of his father’s photos showing Lancaster’s architecture in 1899.

Duncan Phillips included Demuth’s work in his 1926 Exhibition of Paintings by Nine American Artists, which was an effort to make Washington aware of progressive trends in American art. The exhibition intrigued local critics. It included many American artists never before shown in the city who painted in a cubist-influenced style “based on systematized, arbitrary arrangement” of forms. In his catalogue essay, Phillips praised Demuth’s “austerity of ruled line combined with an enchanting quality of color,” and in his collection catalogue of the same year commented on Demuth’s “genius for design and consummate taste and tact.”


Charles Demuth’s painting inspired us to sketch a 2-dimensional (flat) house. Now let’s create a 3-dimensional (sculptural) paper house using a template from the Design Museum, the National Building Museum, of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Look at your house template. Imagine how your house will look when it is put together. Which part will be the front of the house and which will be the back? How will the tabs help hold the house together?

We will decorate the house before we cut and fold the template into a 3-dimensional form. Keeping the template flat, decorate your house. Use your colored pencils and crayons to add color and details.

Construct your house following the instructions. Then add embellishments like pom-poms, stickers, and tape. What else might you add to your house? Explore your own home for more decorations that will make your house look festive!

Use a variety of the templates to make a whole village!

Happy holidays from The Phillips Collection!

Meet Our Fall Interns: Willa, Miki, Paige

Our fall interns are finishing up their internships. Learn about what they have been working on over the past three months.

Willa Alexander-Jaffe, The George Washington University

“I recently graduated from The George Washington University in May with a major in art history and a minor in business administration and music. As a Presidential Scholar in the Arts for violin and a member of the Women’s Leadership Program’s Arts and Culture Cohort, I enjoyed exploring all that Washington, DC, had to offer before the pandemic. The Phillips Collection is one of my favorite museums, due to its intimate layout and riveting collection. As the current Education and Community Engagement Intern, I assist with Art & Wellness and Family Programs, as well as support projects related to the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (THEARC). My main assignment consists of incorporating musical elements into the Iona Program, an art therapy initiative for seniors with memory impairment and physical challenges. Through research and practice, I recognize the mental benefits of engaging elders with music and fine art. I am passionate about supporting organizations that value scholarship and interpretation, and hope to pursue a career in museum education.”

Miki Beyer, George Mason University

“I’m finally, after nearly eight years of on and off school, finishing my B.A. in painting and minor in photography at George Mason University this fall. My final semester has largely focused on my relationship to my family and building ties to Vietnam as our homeland, but my work for the majority of my undergrad dealt with my identity as a non-binary lesbian. At The Phillips Collection, I get to work closely with my mentor, Miguel Perez, in the Public Programs department. It has been exciting to see how we’ve navigated virtual events and the ways we’ve been able to try to make our programs more accessible. My hope in interning with The Phillips Collection was to learn how to create more accessible art spaces, and the program has allowed me to research and write about whatever topics I valued within a museum space. I’ve been able to focus my time on researching how to create more inclusive leadership within a museum space, and developing a public program proposal to reduce barriers within curatorial practices. My time at The Phillips Collection and working with Miguel has allowed me to be more vocal about my opinions and desires in a workplace and future museums. My mentor has encouraged me to consistently question and challenge how things are done, and it has given me the confidence to continue that beyond this program.”

Paige Miller, College of Charleston

“Hi! My name is Paige Miller and I’m currently based in Charleston, South Carolina, and am interning in the Marketing and Communications department. Especially in a world revolutionized by the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic, virtual outreach and communication I feel is more important than ever! I am helping with the website redesign as well as content creating for social media, writing press releases, and pitching events to publications! I’ve been learning a lot and am especially excited to be working with the Community in Focus project, a community effort where the Phillips has invited any and all community members to submit photos of their experience of 2020. Not only are these photos featured in a blog post every week (read more here on the blog), but all the photos submitted will be featured in a special page on our new website. I have learned a lot in the marketing and communications department and have been able to tap into my creative side. Academically, my research interests lie in the study of French art and the intersection of art and business. In May of 2021, I will receive my BA in art history and BS in economics. After graduation, I will be pursuing a graduate degree in art history.”