William H. Johnson, Three Great Abolitionists: A. Lincoln, F. Douglass, J. Brown, about 1945. Oil on paperboard, 37 3/8 x 34 1/4 inches. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. Gift of the Harmon Foundation

Two new exhibits are now open at the Wichita Art Museum.

William H. Johnson’s Fighters for Freedom series pays tribute to African American activists, scientists, teachers and performers as well as international heads of state.

Barbara Earl Thomas’s “The Illuminated Body” features cut-and-layered paper portraits of Thomas’ family, friends, and neighbors, as well as icons of Black literature. 

Both will remain on exhibit at the Wichita Art Museum through Jan. 14. 

Fighters for Freedom

Harriet Tubman. George Washington Carver. Mahatma Ghandhi. All are celebrated—along with less familiar historical figures—by William H. Johnson (1901–1970) in his Fighters for Freedom series, painted  in the aftermath of World War II.

Johnson suggests their stories depict the pursuit of freedom as an ongoing, interconnected struggle, with moments of both triumph and tragedy, and he invites viewers to reflect on our own struggles for justice today. In Fighters for Freedom, Johnson offers a reminder that individual achievement and commitment to social justice are at the heart of the American story.

Like the individuals he called Fighters for Freedom, Johnson understood struggle. He was born in Florence, South Carolina, in 1901, but left the Jim Crow South while still a teenager to go to New York City. There he worked at low-skilled jobs, saved money, and built a portfolio that would earn him admission to the National Academy of Design—where he became a star student—in 1921. Five years later, like many artists of his generation, he left for Europe. In France, he painted landscapes and light-struck villages that marked him as an up-and-coming modernist.

In late 1938, with World War II imminent, Johnson and his Danish wife moved to New York. City. There, he abandoned the dazzling landscapes of his Scandinavian years to focus on the lives of African Americans in New York City and the rural south. He painted sharecroppers, city hipsters, Black soldiers training for war, scenes inspired by Negro spirituals, and his last series, Fighters for Freedom. Although Johnson died in obscurity after a long health struggle, he is known today as one of the most important African American painters of his generation.

Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Generous support for this project is provided by Art Bridges. Principal sponsors include DeVore Foundation, The Fidelity Bank Foundation, Sondra Langel and the Dwane and Velma Wallace Foundation.

The Illuminated Body

Barbara Earl Thomas is a celebrated contemporary artist based in the Seattle area who draws inspiration from history, folklore, biblical stories, and her Southern roots. Her work is in a variety of media, including paper, painting, and glass. 

Although they depict everyday people, her intricate and glowing artworks create a sacred atmosphere, reminiscent of medieval stained glass windows or illuminated manuscripts, where the familiar seems interwoven with the timeless and the mythical.

“I want to take the normal and elevate it to the magnificent,” says Thomas. 

Also included are three glowing glass vessels that feature designs reminiscent of her papercuts. The exhibition culminates in the immersive installation titled The Transformation Room, where light filters through hand-cut Tyvek screens. This space of radiance and luminosity allows the visitor to become part of Thomas’ art.

As a visual storyteller, Thomas seeks to challenge prevailing narratives and replace images of fear and dread with those of grace, resilience, and community. Her work in Barbara Earl Thomas: The Illuminated Body invites viewers to reflect on how they view the world and how they perceive those around them.

Barbara Earl Thomas: The Illuminated Body is organized by the Chrysler Museum of Art.

Art Chatter – October 2023

Art Chatter is back with a local lineup at the Wichita Art Museum on Fri., Oct. 20,  celebrating Black creatives in Wichita, inspired by fall feature exhibitions Fighters for Freedom and The Illuminated Body.

When:  Fri., Oct. 20,  doors and bar open at 6:30 p.m., Chatter Presentation at 7 p.m. 

Host & Emcee: Fayola Oyatayo

Presenters: Paris Cunningham, Kevin Harrison, Imani KO Kouture, Eddie Legacy, Sheldon Mba and, Quintis Pinkston

Free for WAM members, general admission $15.  

Bar is credit/debit card only.

Barbara Earl Thomas, Girl and the World, 2022. Cut black paper on hand-printed colored papers, 41 x 1/4 x 26 1/2 inches. Collection of Hope and Steven Leibsohn