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Set the scene — the American South; the 1930s; the prevalence of white supremacy and the culture of segregation. As the racial struggle slowly boiled, African-American boxers Jack Johnson (1878–1946) and Joe Louis (1914–1981) clawed their way to social prominence and recognition, each earning the title of World Heavyweight Champion. Their success in sport began to erode racial boundaries and to pave the way for social emergence of the African American — no qualifications, simply equal and American.
This is the vision of African-American, Nashville-born artist William Edmondson (1874–1951) when creating his Boxer, circa 1936. As the son of former slaves, Edmondson, who developed his sculpting technique by working on tombstones, internalised the struggle of his parents, and his race, and harnessed within stone the essence of assertive energy. In 1937, Edmondson succeeded in breaking racial barriers by becoming the first African American artist to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art.
William Edmondson (1874–1951), Boxer, circa 1936. Limestone. 17 x 7 1/4 x 9 1/4 in. Estimate $150,000–250,000. This work is offered in our Liberation through Expression: Outsider and Vernacular Art auction on 22 January at Christie’s New York.
After 65 years of presumably unknown whereabouts — that is, until the current owner lent the piece to the Cheekwood Museum of Art in Nashville in 2014 — Boxer unassumingly enters the ring, prepared for action. Chiselled from limestone, he stands a mere 17 inches high, 7 1/4 inches wide and 9 1/4 inches deep.
Although no direct connection between Johnson, Louis and Edmondson impacted the creation of the sculpture, American Folk and Outsider Art specialist Cara Zimmerman suggests that the Boxer ‘represents the hope, energy and strength embodied by the two great black boxers of Edmondson’s lifetime.’
Fighter personified, the small sculpture — reportedly a favourite piece of the artist who kept it in his backyard, resting on a shelf and protected by an overhang, until its sale in 1949 — expresses the vectors of social struggle, restraint and progression. Its cocked arms and firm hold promote a forward strength simultaneously contained by the restrictive limestone and the seat, or boxer’s stool, on the back of the sculpture.
Just like the push-pull movement embedded in the piece, the two pugilists had contrasting methods of promoting African American equality: Johnson, more overt, defiantly dating and marrying white women; Louis, more subtle, using his skills and proper behaviour to undermine racial stereotypes. However, although these African-American boxers asserted their physical prowess and made a stand for parity, success in sport only temporarily overrides racial divisions.
Edmondson’s art harmonises these extremes, refracting and eternalising the ongoing battle for equality, and offering a constant reminder that true cultural change ultimately requires collective reconsideration. Where physical expression meets the artistic, Boxer emerges as a victor: a testament to the voices of the oppressed and repressed; a champion for a united America.
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