About This Exhibition

Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice

Barbara Earl Thomas: The Illuminated Body

Portraits of Hope brings together exhibitions by two important African American artists. Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice features work by American modernist William H. Johnson, whose 1940s-era series was painted to celebrate African American leaders.

Barbara Earl Thomas: The Illuminated Body features cut paper portraits of Black young people by contemporary artist Barbara Earl Thomas. Thomas’ portraits celebrate young people who live lives of joy and achievement even in unjust circumstances.

Together, the paired exhibitions—one picturing famous heroes of the past and one picturing everyday heroes of the present—speak to resilience, grace, and the hope for a better future.

Figures of three men, Frederick Douglass, John Brown and Abraham Lincoln, in front of a light green background with icons of a man plowing with a mule, people working and cotton plants around them

William H. Johnson, Three Great Abolitionists: A. Lincoln, F. Douglass, J. Brown, about 1945. Oil on paperboard, 37 3/8 x 34 1/4 inches. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. Gift of the Harmon Foundation Bridge


Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice

African American woman, head wrapped in a yellow and orange, dressed is a blue coat and red and white striped long skirt, stands against an abstract landscape of lines of browns, grays, yellow, geen and purple. The gray sky has a blue slash with a yellow star at her bck. At the side ins a head and shoulders of an African American Woman with a green head wraop and longer yellow wrap around her head and down to her shoulders.

William H. Johnson, Harriet Tubman, about 1945. Oil on paperboard, 28 7/8 x 23 3/8 inches. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. Gift of the Harmon Foundation

Harriet Tubman. George Washington Carver. Mahatma Ghandhi. All are celebrated—along with less familiar historical figures—by William H. Johnson (1901–1970) in his Fighters for Freedom series. This tribute to African American activists, scientists, teachers, and performers as well as international heads of state was painted in the aftermath of World War II by Johnson, himself an African American artist. Through their stories, he suggests the pursuit of freedom is an ongoing, interconnected struggle, with moments of both triumph and tragedy, and he invites us to reflect on our own struggles for justice today. In Fighters for Freedom, Johnson reminds us that individual achievement and commitment to social justice are at the heart of the American story.

Like the individuals he called Fighters for Freedom, Johnson understood struggle. He was born in Florence, South Carolina, in 1901, but left the Jim Crow South while still a teenager to go to New York City. There he worked at low-skilled jobs, saved money, and built a portfolio that would earn him admission to the National Academy of Design—where he became a star student—in 1921. Five years later, like many artists of his generation, he left for Europe. In France, he painted landscapes and light-struck villages that marked him as an up-and-coming modernist.

In late 1938, with World War II imminent, Johnson and his Danish wife moved to New York. City There, he abandoned the dazzling landscapes of his Scandinavian years to focus on the lives of African Americans in New York City and the rural south. He painted sharecroppers, city hipsters, Black soldiers training for war, scenes inspired by Negro spirituals, and his last series, Fighters for Freedom. Although Johnson died in obscurity after a long health struggle, he is known today as one of the most important African American painters of his generation.

Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Generous support for this project is provided by Art Bridges.


Barbara Earl Thomas: The Illuminated Body

Head and shoulders of an African American woman with the words True North on her black shirt. The background is bright orange and yellow and there are vines, leaves, flowers, dragonfly, and a compass,

Barbara Earl Thomas, True North, 2020. Cut paper and hand-printed color backing, 40 x 26 inches. Private collection

A teenage poet reads her book. A girl cuddles her dog. In The Illuminated Body, Barbara Earl Thomas draws on family photographs taken by friends and colleagues to create cut paper portraits of Black children and teens in her community. Faced with a violent world, these young people nonetheless live lives of joy. The glowing, cut paper panels—some of which Thomas lights from behind—create a sacred feeling, almost as if the children are saints enshrined in stained glass windows or medieval paintings. The portraits are placed in an immersive, light-filled environment of glowing Tyvek.

For Thomas, these celebratory portraits serve as counterpoints to images of young Black people affected by cruelty and tragedy that populate the media. These images picture grace and resilience, “the opposite of fear and dread.” As Thomas notes, “the children here represent the futures we want to give to humanity, ones we guard because they offer the best hope for all of us.”

Barbara Earl Thomas is a contemporary artist working in the Seattle area. She is inspired by history, folklore, biblical stories, and her family’s Southern roots. Thomas studied art at the University of Washington and earned her master’s degree in 1977. Her mentors included the legendary Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas. An author as well as visual artist—in 1998 and 2000 she received the Seattle Arts Commission Award for new non-fiction—she sees herself above all as a storyteller. She has exhibited widely throughout the United States. Her solo exhibition Barbara Earl Thomas: The Geography of Innocence closed last January at the Seattle Art Museum.

Barbara Earl Thomas: The Illuminated Body is organized by the Wichita Art Museum and the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia.

2022 exhibitions and public programs are generously supported by the Downing Foundation.