Austin Businesswoman Helps Bring a Slice of African-American History to the Blanton

Jan 2, 2017

When the Blanton unveils its reinstalled permanent collection in February, a 10-foot-tall, three-dimensional portrait made of 3,840 hair combs is sure to capture visitors’ attention.

The portrait depicts Madam C.J. Walker, an African-American entrepreneur who’s often called the first self-made female millionaire in U.S. history.

The new acquisition will be the first in the museum’s collection depicting a female African-American historical figure, and was funded by a grassroots effort led by a local African-American businesswoman named Marilyn Johnson. The majority of that fundraising, Johnson says, was raised from the black professional community in Austin over a four-year period. The museum is purchasing the piece for $72,000 – all but $3,000 of which has been paid off.

Veronica Roberts, the curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Blanton, worked on the acquisition with Johnson. She said she’s never seen an acquisition like this.

“It reminds me of a Kickstarter. There are more than 50 contributors,” she said. “It makes for the longest label you’ll ever see at a museum.”

Johnson, who moved to Austin in the 1990s to serve as an executive at IBM, is now on the board of the Blanton Museum. She became a docent in 2012, when the museum approached the National Council of Negro Women to ask if any of its members would be interested in the program. Johnson, who was president of the group at the time, signed up immediately. But when she visited the museum, she realized she wanted to do more than teach people about the collection. She wanted to help add to it.

“I didn’t see a lot of work by African American women in the museum. So, the next day I came back to docent class and gave [the museum] a check for $5,000 dollars and said ‘I want to start a fund to procure a work of art for the Blanton’s permanent collection by an African American woman,’” she recalled.

The museum, which relies on private fundraising and donations to procure new works of art, welcomed Johnson’s efforts. And Roberts began working with her to decide which work of art to buy. They chose the sculpture entitled Madam C.J. Walker, by African-American artist Sonya Clark, for both its aesthetic appeal and its historical significance.

“This piece is made of hair combs – plastic hair combs. It is the most amazing thing. If you can just imagine in your mind 3,840 hair combs assembled in a tapestry, with teeth popped out so that it creates a silhouette profile of this beautiful woman,” Johnson said.

She hopes that some visitors to the museum will recognize Madam Walker from a postage stamp, issued in 1998. The portrait in the Blanton is based on the same 1903 photo of Madam Walker that appears on the stamp. The exhibition gives those who don’t recognize her an opportunity to learn more about her legacy

Walker became one of the richest women in US in the 1910s for selling her line of beauty and hair products. Walker’s company encouraged African-American women to work as saleswomen and encouraged them to strive towards financial independence.

“It’s important that black girls and women can see themselves and their history represented in the museum,” Johnson said. “People will see that in this photo. It’s pretty iconic – especially in the black community, especially with black women, especially with black women in the beauty industry. Everybody knows Madam C.J. Walker.”

The artist, Sonya Clark, is African American and has pieces in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as well as in the Indianapolis Museum of Art. She will be at the Blanton to discuss her sculpture on Feb. 16 at an event that is free and open to the public.

Madam C.J. Walker will be unveiled along with the rest of the Blanton’s reinstalled permanent collection on the Feb. 12.