For decades, artists Dindga McCannon, Camille Billops, Vivian Browne, and May Stevens created works deemed too political—in medium and in message—for the largely white, male-dominated art market. Operating on the margins of the mainstream, they found alternative channels to exhibit and sell their work and helped move the needle for women and Black artists with their activism. Two presentations at Independent 20th Century suggest that the market is finally catching up with them.
“Like a lot of things when it comes to women, we were just left out for no good reason,” said the Philadelphia-based McCannon, 76, whose six-decade multimedia practice fuses fiber art, painting, drawing, sculpture, and printmaking. Long relegated to the realm of craft and “women’s work,” fiber art was omitted from conventional museum and gallery exhibitions until the late 20th century.
That didn’t stop McCannon and her peers at the forefront of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s and 70s from continuing to make their art and earn a living. “‘Fine art’ is not the only art in the world. I used to pack up my work and my children and head to summertime culture fairs all around the US; pretty much every major city has one,” McCannon said. “I was able to eke out a living—not the best of one, but enough to keep going.”
Born and raised in Harlem, McCannon is the subject of a solo presentation at Independent 20th Century by Fridman Gallery, featuring her quilts, paintings, and prints depicting Black women. While the work is not overtly political, her reclamation of female-coded practices like needlework and celebration of Black identity were acts of resistance in and of themselves, pulling focus to the marginalized makers excluded from an artistic canon constructed by white men.
McCannon’s contemporaries Camille Billops (1933-2019), Vivian Browne (1929-93), and May Stevens (1924-2019) were also active within New York’s alternative art ecosystem during the civil rights era and beyond. The three artists were friends and supporters of one another, which prompted RYAN LEE gallery to exhibit their works in conversation at this September’s fair; some pieces from Stevens’s and Browne’s estates have never been displayed before.
All three artists shared a penchant for confrontational work that enfolded personal and political concerns, explained Jeffrey Lee, RYAN LEE’s co-founder. Billops’s filmmaking, sculpture and printmaking reflects her foundational role within the city’s community of Black artists and intellectuals from the 1960s through the 90s. Her 1973 etching and aquatint I am Black, I am Black, I am Dangerously Black encapsulates her identity-based politics. “It was bold, badass,” Lee said.
Browne’s Little Men series, created at the height of her frustration with the white male establishment during the civil rights movement, satirizes white men in power as petulant babies. Similarly, but from her perspective as a white woman, Stevens’s Pop-inspired Big Daddy paintings—for which she remains best known—critiqued the bigotry she perceived in her own father. The works juxtaposed a recurring patriarch figure with kitschy, empty totems of American patriotism.
Activism and Organizing
Works such as these brought into sharp relief the racism and sexism of 20th-century America—the very systemic barriers that precluded the artists from achieving commercial success akin to their white male counterparts. But their political activism and community organizing laid the bedrock for a more inclusive art scene that not only provided opportunities to show their work, but to sell it.
“Political activity does not interfere with my work, it feeds it,” Stevens said in a 2009 oral history interview for the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. She was a founding member of the Guerilla Girls and of the artist-run feminist gallery SOHO20, launched in 1973 to promote and sell work by women artists. Among them were Browne and Billops, who also showed at Just Above Midtown (JAM), one of the first Black-owned commercial galleries. Around the same time, Billops and her husband James Hatch turned their Broadway loft into a salon-style space for Black artists and creatives. Together they amassed an archive of publications, photographs, films, and oral histories documenting 20th-century Black culture, which they donated to multiple universities across the US in the 1990s.
McCannon had been working since the mid-1960s with the Harlem-based Weusi Artist Collective, formed by Black artists who incorporated African imagery and practices in their work. In 1971, she co-founded the groundbreaking collective Where We At Black Women Artists, Inc. with Kay Brown and Faith Ringgold. In addition to organizing group shows and community workshops, the members also crucially shared childcare support.
“Initially, when Kay and Faith and I first started meeting up, we just wanted to talk,” McCannon recalled. The meetings grew in size and in scope, evolving from an exhibition project to a coalition; Browne was an early joiner of the group. “Being a single Black mother is not easy. All of us needed help,” McCannon said. “Working with other women with different skills, contacts, and abilities helped us all have careers and build our own customer base.”
The efforts of these women of color blazed a trail for subsequent generations of artists. But there were fault lines in their pursuit of equal opportunity, which paralleled the gender- and race-based discrimination they fought against. “Early in my career, I had a lot of friends and supporters who were men. And that changed when I had children,” said McCannon, explaining that Where We At was founded in response to men’s “very narrow” perception that a mother’s place was in the home.
And despite the women-led character of Where We At and of McCannon’s work, she didn’t identify with the feminist movement at the time, which was overwhelmingly white. However, Browne and to a lesser extent Billops were active within both Black and feminist groups in the 1970s and 80s, among them the SOHO20 gallery and the journal Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics, which Stevens also co-founded. Stevens, for her part, advocated for anti-racism within the white feminist movement and was “one of few white artists to confront the civil rights movement head-on,” according to a posthumous 2021 profile in Art in America.
Nevertheless, white privilege has had an impact on the market’s valuation of these artists. “May [Stevens] definitely had a little more visibility and her work was collected by museums earlier on than Browne or Billops,” said Lee. Her works on paper and paintings on offer at the fair are priced between $45,000 to $325,000. Comparatively, Browne’s works are priced from $10,000 to $200,000 and Billops’s from $10,000 to $150,000.
There are other factors that have affected Billops’s and Browne’s markets. Billops worked across multiple mediums and was better known in her lifetime for her documentary films, especially the Sundance prize-winning Finding Christa (1991), which followed her search for the daughter she gave up for adoption. Browne died in 1993—26 years before Stevens and Billops. “She’s less known for this reason, and her works are fewer—she only made about ten Little Men,” added Lee.
Studies show that sales of art by women and Black artists overall lag far behind in total value within the marketplace. A report by journalists Julia Halperin and Charlotte Burns found that of the $186.9 billion of international art auction sales between 2008 and 2022, works by women accounted for only 3.3%, works by Black American artists represented 2%, and works by Black American women artists represented only 0.1%.
Change is coming, albeit slowly. Dozens of auction records for women and Black artists have been set in recent years, as more museums and galleries dedicate space and resources to showing work by marginalized artists. For instance, McCannon, Billops, and Browne were all featured in the Brooklyn Museum’s 2017 exhibition We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85. In 2020, McCannon’s painting The Last Farewell (1970) was offered at Swann auction house’s watershed white-glove sale of African-American art from the Johnson Publishing Company collection; it sold for $161,000 against a $20,000 estimate.
“We’re seeing a flashpoint of museum and market interest in [McCannon’s] work,” said Ilya Fridman, the director of Fridman Gallery. He began representing the artist in 2021, the first time she had ever had commercial gallery representation in her long career. Fridman’s Independent 20th Century presentation will range from unique monoprints to one of her last available mixed-media paintings from the 1970s, priced from $15,000 to $150,000.
The political bent and historical significance of McCannon’s art means institutional interest preceded private collector investment. But the latter often follows the former, according to Fridman. “There are collectors for whom it is important to have a museum’s or auction house’s stamp of approval,” he said. “Dindga’s work has now been firmly accepted in the art-historical canon.”
McCannon herself remains clear-sighted amid the surge in attention, noting that she never felt underrecognized. “I always felt like my work had good reception within my own community,” she said. But she is “glad to still be breathing” to witness a new generation’s appreciation. “Now I can look forward to a nice old age without worrying about where my next dollar is coming from.”
Margaret Carrigan is an American writer, editor, and producer living in London. She writes about contemporary art and where it meets feminism, capitalism, activism, environmentalism, and other “isms.” Her writing has been featured in The Art Newspaper, Cultured, Frieze, and the Observer, among other publications. Her media appearances and productions include The Art Newspaper’s The Week in Art podcast, on which she was a regular co-host and pundit; Bloomberg’s Odd Lots; ArtTactic; TRT World; and Reuters.
Learn more about Fridman Gallery’s presentation of Dindga McCannon at Independent 20th Century.
Learn more about RYAN LEE’s presentation of Camille Billops, Vivan Browne, and May Stevens at Independent 20th Century.