African Headdress

American artist inspired by African works

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by Kathryn Siefker, Associate Curator of Exhibition Content

Hale Woodruff (1900–1980) was an American printmaker, draftsman, muralist, and painter from Illinois who focused his work on how African culture influenced modern art. As a student at the Herron Art Institute in Indiana in the 1920s, Woodruff was gifted with a copy of Afrikanische Plastik, a book of African sculpture by Carl Einstein. The artistry represented in the book would continue to inspire him throughout his life.

After studying for several years in France, Woodruff returned to the United States in 1931 where he accepted a position as the first art instructor at the Atlanta University Center. In Atlanta, his work was inspired by Southern life and he gravitated towards social realism, a popular style among American artists in the 1930s. His reputation grew across the nation, prompting the inclusion of his work at the 1936 Texas Centennial in Dallas.

The Texas Centennial at Fair Park included the Hall of Negro Life, designed to highlight the contributions African Americans had made to the development of the state and the nation. Dedicated on June 19, 1936 (Juneteenth), the hall featured six exhibitions including a display on African American music and art. Works by well-known artists from around the country, including Woodruff, were displayed in two exhibition rooms, and over the course of the Centennial, more than 400,000 visitors viewed the works.

Between 1931 and 1946, Woodruff created a series of linoleum cuts completed during his time in Atlanta. African Headdress is one of that series, finished in 1935 but not printed until 1996. The piece shows Woodruff's fascination with African art. The female figure in the print, with her oval head and long, slender nose, is a nod to masks of the Baule people from the Ivory Coast in West Africa. Her features suggest a specific type of Baule mask that a man might commission to honor a female relative or to pay homage to a woman’s beauty.

In 1946 Woodruff moved to New York where he taught in the art department at New York University from 1947 until his retirement in 1968. Woodruff won multiple awards including the William E. Harmon Award, the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, and an honorary doctorate from Morgan State College. His work was recently exhibited at the African American Museum of Dallas, and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia. Among his most recognized and heralded works are murals located at Talladega College, Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries, and the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building in California.

Hale Woodruff's African Headdress is part of a nationally traveling exhibition REFLECTIONS: African American Life from the Myrna Colley-Lee Collection, organized by International Arts & Artists, Washington, D.C. in collaboration with the office of Myrna Colley-Lee.

The exhibition is on view through August 23, 2015 at the Bullock Museum.

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African Headdress Artifact from New York, New York
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