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The Johnson Collection represented in La Biennale, Venice, Italy

April 21, 2022 | Press Releases



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Loïs Mailou Jones (1905–1998), Africa, 1935, oil on canvas board, 24 x 20 inches. The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina.

The Johnson Collection will be represented in the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia with the 1935 oil painting, Africa, by distinguished artist-educator Loïs Mailou Jones (1905–1998). Curated by Cecilia Alemani, the main exhibition, titled The Milk of Dreams, will be on view from Saturday, April 23 to Sunday November 27, 2022, in Venice. 

Often referred to as the “Olympics of the art world,” the Biennale Arte has been held every two years since 1895. Originally slated for 2021, the 59th International Art Exhibition was postponed until this spring due to COVID-19. The much-anticipated main exhibition will highlight objects by 213 artists from 58 countries. For the first time in the Biennale Arte’s history, women—many of color—make up 90% of the artist list, a striking divergence from the traditionally male-dominated roster. What emerges, Alemani believes, is a historical narrative rooted in “solidarity and sisterhood.” Working in the mid-twentieth century, Loïs Jones confronted both gender and racial discrimination, obstacles she termed “the double handicap: being a woman and being a woman of color.”  

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Loïs Mailou Jones, 1937. Courtesy of Loïs Mailou Jones Pierre-Noël Trust.

Born in Boston, Loïs Mailou Jones studied at the acclaimed School of the Museum of Fine Arts in her hometown. Denied a teaching position at her alma mater because of her race, Jones soon thereafter joined the art faculty of Howard University in Washington, DC, where she taught for 47 years. In addition to her responsibilities at Howard, Jones pursued her own creative explorations, which included painting and illustration. Her deep interest in ancestral legacy informs Africa (1935, oil on canvas board, 24 x 20 inches), a canvas depicting three sharply defined figures with chiseled features. Executed in vibrant jewel-like hues, the trio’s symmetrical, elongated features and expressionless eyes recall similar visages found in African masks, a recurrent aesthetic component in Jones’s oeuvre. In both subject and style, Africa is a powerful elucidation of one of The Milk of Dreams’ three thematic inquiries: “the representation of bodies and their metamorphoses.” 

Located in Spartanburg, South Carolina, the Johnson Collection has been hailed for having staged a “quiet art historical revolution” and expanding “the meaning of regional” through its “exhibitions, loans, publications, and institutional partnerships.” What began as an interest in paintings by Carolina artists in 2002 has grown to encompass 1,200 objects with provenances that span the centuries and chronicle the cultural evolution of the American South. Since 2012, TJC has produced four significant scholarly books, including its 2018 volume, Central to Their Lives: Women Artists in the Johnson Collection, which featured Loïs Mailou Jones’s Africa in its pages as well as its traveling companion exhibition. More recently, the collection lent Africa to two national presentations: Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition (The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, 2020) and Afro-Atlantic Histories (The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, 2021). 

Works by other female artists represented in the Johnson Collection are also showcased in the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia: Ruth Asawa, Minnie Evans, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Augusta Savage, and Laura Waring. In addition to the main exhibition installed at the Central Pavilion of the Giardini della Biennale, 80 participating nations will host separate exhibitions in the additional pavilions in the Giardini and in the Arsenale, as well as other venues throughout Venice. An array of diverse collateral events—performing and fine arts, educational, and philanthropic—will take place over the Biennale Arte’s duration. 


The Johnson Collection 

Hailed by The Magazine Antiques with having staged a “quiet art historical revolution” and expanding “the meaning of regional” through its “exhibitions, loans, publications, and institutional partnerships,” the Johnson Collection seeks to illuminate the rich history and diverse cultures of the American South.

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