Black Arts at Oxy

Marie Johnson "Woman with Flowers", 1968

In 1968, Marie Johnson created Woman with Flowers, a contemplative mixed media painting featuring a young black girl grasping two flowers against an urban backdrop. Woman with Flowers is a stellar embodiment of Johnson’s vibrant painting techniques. Drawing inspiration from her family and her life in the Bay Area, Johnson encapsulates a quotidian moment of the black, female experience in Woman with Flowers. The central subject of the painting is a woman wearing a blue dress with a white flower collar that matches her sleeves. Her chin is tilted slightly upwards, giving her an air of confidence and poise. She wears a subtle smile, and clasps a pink and blue flower in her hands. The subject possesses a certain ownership of the scene behind her; an urban environment composed of several buildings made of visibly different materials. She stands in front of a multi-level house, perhaps an apartment complex. In each visible window of this building, other various subjects carry out the regular routines of daily life.

During the 1960’s, Johnson became increasingly active in the San Jose chapter of the NAACP. Johnson was particularly dedicated to establishing access to equal job opportunities for minority students. Johnson’s artistic practice was particularly influenced by her participation in the March on Selma in 1965. Johnson explains, “When I came back I felt as though abstract work had to go on hold. So I started painting my world around me.” Considering the way in which the civil rights movement spurred a monumental shift in Johnson’s practice, the urban setting of Woman with Flowers may be a direct reference to the Civil Rights Act of 1968. This Civil Rights Act prohibited the discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of housing. In contrast to the success of this anti-discriminatory housing policy, the black community suffered a deep loss with the murder of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. The quiet, almost sorrowful demeanor of the central female subject in Woman of Flowers could be in response to the black community's continuing challenges with access to housing in addition to the immense sense of grief and loss of hope experienced after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.


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