Sculpture and National Identity

Art has long played an essential role in forging national identities, whether through depicting historical events or creating monuments and public buildings to memorialise its country’s past, art can help strengthen a nation’s sense of pride and belongingness.

Sculpture can serve as an expressive outlet for many artists to explore aspects of themselves that might otherwise remain unsaid; frequently this exploration includes intersectionality.

1. Maya Lin

Maya Lin is an esteemed American artist known for her large-scale environmental installations, intimate studio works, and architectural pieces. Her sculpture combines rational order with notions of beauty in an unconventional yet beautiful fashion; and has graced both public and private institutions across her career.

The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery is currently featuring an exhibit entitled One Life: Maya Lin that examines her artistic journey and provides a window into her inner world. This display showcases 3D models, sketchbooks and drawings that highlight some of Maya Lin’s key designs such as Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Born in Athens, Ohio to Chinese parents, Lin was greatly shaped by her Chinese heritage throughout her early life. Through this background she gained an appreciation of design and architecture; both would later play key roles in her works.

Lin is an award-winning architect and public artist, designing buildings and public art projects which focus on human rights, civil liberties and environmental concerns.

Lin has always been inspired by nature’s landscape – both land and seascapes – throughout her career. Drawing inspiration from childhood interest in biology and zoology, she strives to incorporate its terrain in her works while showing reverence for it.

Many of her earthworks and sited installations aim to draw attention to nature, like her 2021 installation Ghost Forest which transported 49 dead Atlantic cedar trees from a salt water flood to Madison Square Park in New York City. What Is Missing? aims to document and preserve our planet’s natural terrain before it disappears forever.

2. Thomas Eakins

Thomas Eakins was born and lived most of his life in Philadelphia. He was the only child of Caroline Cowperthwait Eakins (of English and Dutch descent) and Benjamin Eakins (a writing master and calligraphy instructor of Scots-Irish descent).

Eakins learned to draw and paint from his father during his early childhood years. With an interest in anatomy, Eakins decided to travel abroad in 1866-1870 in pursuit of art, studying under Jean-Leon Gerome and Leon Bonnat (French realist painters known for anatomically accurate paintings).

After returning to America, Eakins dedicated himself to exploring his artistic vision – one which focused on human figures and nature. His paintings captured movement and physiognomy of both people and animals with great detail.

He focused on depicting human forms with great accuracy in his works and refined the technique taught to him by Jean-Leon Gerome to produce more realistic depictions. After employing photography to record and enhance the qualities of his models, he employed photography as an instrument of recording his work and documenting physical appearance changes over time.

Eakins’ sculptures have long been seen as the pinnacle of American identity, reflecting both nationalistic sentiments prevalent during his time and depicting educated, socially prominent and financially successful figures. Scholars often include his portraits of persons of lower status or marginalized social groups in their readings of American identity as sympathetic and democratic representations despite often portraying people with untypical appearances.

3. Ellen Gallagher

Ellen Gallagher’s captivating sculptures, drawings and paintings explore the complex relationship between race, identity and history. Born in Providence, Rhode Island she draws influence from Agnes Martin as well as African American-oriented publications like Ebony. Additionally her experience working as a commercial fisherman in Alaska and on sailboat in the Caribbean have also shaped her work.

Paradise Shift is an exciting mix of drawing, painting, collage and three-dimensional elements created by artist Sara Brackmann. Her most recent series combines paper and canvas that have been stretched, bleached and incised into striated areas that allude to machine printed lines, the minimalism of Agnes Martin as well as expressive accumulations of ink-stained printed matter.

DeLuxe (2004-05), she creates a grid of framed prints from ads found in African American magazines and manipulates them with white-out eyes and yellow bizarre forms that superimpose onto heads to form vampiric and alien-like characters that subvert commercial exploitation of race-targeted products designed for hair straightening or skin lightening.

Her other series, such as Watery Ecstatic (2001-) and Morphia (2008), employ watercolour paper to depict tentacled sea animals whose features appear three dimensional. She draws these on thickly layered paper before cutting it out and adhering it to a glass surface to reveal both sides of the paper.

Her work has been displayed in many acclaimed museums and galleries around the world, including major collections like those held by The Museum of Modern Art (New York); Art Institute of Chicago; National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh (UK) among many others.

4. Richard Wiley

Richard Wiley’s sculptures combine traditional modes of representation with urban, black and brown men being depicted as powerful and sublime figures – often alluding to Old Masters paintings, these large scale pieces often reference them too.

James Quin, Actor emulates the baroque portraits of British painter William Hogarth while attributing authority and respectability in a modern manner. To do this, his 2008 work highlights sitter’s posture more prominently and uses titles to emphasize importance.

Rumors of War, installed at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 2018, was an artistic response to violence occurring across America, replacing traditional white subjects with African American men as an artistic statement about inclusive American stories. It allows more complex and complete American histories to be told.

Wiley makes humorous references to art history and master painters in his sculptures, especially with regard to their lineage; specifically in relation to who painted Ship of Fools – an oceanscape depicting migration, dangerous sea crossings and legacies of transatlantic slave trade – his painting that features migration, dangerous crossings and legacies of slavery trade.

Wiley also creates stained glass and painted altarpieces that explore art history, race, gender and representation through stained glass illuminators and painted canvases. His bronze sculptures have received widespread acclaim as important pieces in people’s lives.

5. Richard Barthe

Barthe’s sculptures reflected his identity as well as his political and cultural activism, such as creating works such as Head of a Tortured Negro and Mother and Son that depicted racial conflict within the US.

Barthe’s career showcases how classical idealism could be applied to the body of people of color to produce powerful, beautiful, and strikingly captivating works. His sculptures also served as an outlet for his anger as an African American gay artist working in an environment which he perceived to be hostile.

Barthe’s sculptures often depict homoerotic themes exploiting Black male nudity for its racial, cultural and erotic significance. He was one of the first modern artists to use African Americans as models; his sculptures also frequently included depictions of African American subjects.

He was part of the Harlem Renaissance, an African American movement which emerged during New York art scene’s early 30s and was distinguished by integrating African Americans into its ranks. Socializing with many prominent writers and artists of this era such as Alain Locke, Richard Bruce Nugent, Claude McKay Langston Hughes Countee Cullen as well as poet Lincoln Kirstein was part of his daily routine.

Barthe is best known for his sculpture Black Narcissus (1929), which marries Greek mythology with classical antiquity references and homoerotic desires of Black male nudism. Additionally, Barthe was an instrumental contributor to the development of the New Negro movement which sought to combine classical ideas with primitivism in complementary ways.

6. Archibald John Motley Jr.

Motley was raised in New Orleans within an upper-middle class black family. As a talented artist he became one of the key contributors to the Harlem Renaissance period when African-American art flourished both locally and nationally.

He graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1918, studying with several masters such as George Bellows and Alfred Krehbiel. His works were showcased at many group exhibitions; receiving several awards along the way.

Although best known for his paintings of the 1920s and 1930s, he also created many sculptures – particularly Street Light Pole Banners which featured cartoon-like street scenes.

Although his critics had reservations that Motley’s depictions were caricatures, Motley believed they helped increase the appeal of his work among a wider audience and dispel stereotypes prevalent during that era; providing an all-inclusive picture of Black life.

Motley was an important artist of the Black Renaissance who embodied its vision of racial progress and urban lifestyle, though some of his paintings veered toward caricature. He drew upon his ethnic roots, such as those from Bronzeville in Chicago where he resided for many years, to capture urban life’s energy while exploring tensions among race, class and social position in his works.