Sculptor John Rhoden (1918-2001).
FIFTEEN YEARS AFTER THE DEATH of African American sculptor John Rhoden (1918-2001), his widow died in 2016. The couple was childless and Richanda Rhoden did not designate a beneficiary in her will, but she did specify that the couple’s estate should go to an institution willing to steward her husband’s sculptural works.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Robert T. Anker, the executor of the estate, reached out to several museums to ascertain interest. He focused on institutions that have been diversifying their collections by prioritizing acquisitions by African American artists. Some museums didn’t even bother to respond. PAFA was among those contacted. In January, the Philadelphia institution announced it was accepting responsibility for more than 275 works by Rhoden and would hire a curator to oversee the collection.
Born in Birmingham, Ala., Rhoden attended Talladega College before moving to New York in 1938. He served in the Army during World War II and afterward enrolled in the School of Painting and Sculpture at Columbia University. He was a 1951 Fulbright Fellow and studied at the American Academy in Rome (1952-1954).
In 1950, Rhoden’s work was featured in PAFA’s annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting and Sculpture. The exhibition is the artist’s only previous connection to PAFA. His sculptures were also displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Rhoden, 82, lived in Brooklyn, N.Y.
PAFA curatorial fellow Kelli Morgan called Rhoden “a world-class sculptor.” She told the Inquirer he had substantial visibility in Europe, Italy and Russia in particular, but “never really established a market for himself in the States.” She said, “A lot of that had to do with the times. It was hard for African Americans to get into museum shows, let alone gallery shows.”
Entrusted with his legacy, PAFA is charged with widening his recognition and attention. The agreement includes $5 million to endow a curatorial position dedicated to the Rhoden Collection, organize a traveling exhibition, publish a major book about Rhoden, and work with major U.S. museums to place his work in their collections. The funds also support a full scholarship for a PAFA student and a new arts center that will bear the Rhodens’s names.
“PAFA is committed to elevating the reputations for artists whose accomplishments have not been fully recognized, often for reasons of race and gender. Through a comprehensive study, traveling exhibition and distribution of his work, PAFA will give John Rhoden the attention he deserves,” PAFA President and CEO David Brigham, said in a statement.
“PAFA is committed to elevating the reputations for artists whose accomplishments have not been fully recognized, often for reasons of race and gender. PAFA will give John Rhoden the attention he deserves.”
— David Brigham, PAFA President and CEO
Curator Brittan Webb will steward the John Rhoden Collection at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. | Courtesy PAFA
Rhoden worked with wood, metal, and stone. Brigham described his sculptures to the Inquirer. He said they “are in the stylistic realm of modernist figuration” and “fit broadly into cubism and surrealism.” He added that the works reference African and Indonesian sculptural traditions. The artist also invoked Frederick Douglass, and themes of race and history in his work.
ON APRIL 5, PAFA ANNOUNCED the new curator of the Rhoden Collection is Brittany Webb. She is a curatorial and research assistant at the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP), where one of Rhoden’s best known public art works greets visitors as they enter. Standing nine-feet tall, “Nesaika” was commissioned when the museum was founded in 1976.
Webb joined AAMP in 2012. During her tenure, she has worked on a variety of exhibitions spanning fine art, costuming, textiles and history. A doctoral candidate in anthropology at Temple University, her dissertation “examines black exhibition production and its relationship to the sociopolitical landscape.” Webb is the recipient of the Institute of Museum and Library Services Fellowship in Museum Practice (2012-2014). She starts at PAFA April 24.
“Everyone at PAFA is looking forward to welcoming Ms. Webb to the Museum team!” Brooke Davis, director of the PAFA Museum, said in a statement. “Brittany impressed us with her hemispheric point of view around artists of African descent who have worked in the U.S., as well as her interest in elevating the posthumous career of John Rhoden. It is this global discourse that Brittany is committed to sharing with our audiences, in addition to her ambition to excite our audiences about Rhoden, that made her stand out for this new position.” CT
TOP IMAGE: Sculptor John Rhoden, n.d. | Courtesy PAFA
VIEW MORE IMAGES of John Rhoden’s sculptures in the Philadelphia Inquirer
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JOHN RHODEN, “The Slave Ship,” n.d. (bronze). | Courtesy PAFA