“Material Girls: Contemporary Black Women Artists” at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture offers a glimpse of the sculptural practices of eight artists hailing from the mid-
Atlantic region of the United States. The exhibition brings together a selection of 40 objects and installations by Chakaia Booker, Sonya Clark, Torkwase Dyson, Maya Freelon Asante, Maren Hassinger, Martha Jackson-Jarvis, Joyce J. Scott and Renée Stout. A tour de force of textures, colors and shapes, these tactile works range from small-scale and intricate—Scott’s Virgin Water (2000), a luminous glass sculpture made of beads and metalwork—to large-scale: Hassinger’s Love (2008), a buoyant, wall-hugging pyramid of inflated bubble-gum pink plastic bags containing paper love notes that climbs 20 feet from floor to ceiling.

The modest catalogue and wall texts both delineate each artist’s inheritance of craft-based practices by highlighting her family history and link her subject matter to Africa and the black diaspora. Clark’s Thread Wrapped (2008) weaves together colorful thread and simple black plastic combs (like those dispensed for school photographs) to produce a 4-by-5-foot tapestry that echoes West African kente cloth, while Dyson’s 1-by-2-foot Untitled (West African mask, V-8 Model engine, and bling T-shirt), 2008, an oblong assemblage that resembles an African mask, conflates disparate sources, including a model car engine and hip-hop paraphernalia.

The installations and sculptures by Stout are among the strongest in the exhibition. The Thinking Room (2005) is a reduced version of a space in the artist’s home; it is a colorful domain for her alter ego, the psychic Fatima Mayfield. The bright red walls cluttered with amateur painted and photographic portraits, African masks, crucifixes, wigs, a Byzantine icon, a Buddhist sculpture and other objects wrap around a boudoir furnished with a plush yellow velvet loveseat, acid green silk pillows, gilded wooden tables, mule slippers and myriad jars of herbal remedies and potions. This approximately 10-foot-square room exudes the power of female spiritual and curative practices that cross cultural boundaries. In contrast stands Stout’s Ogun’s Bed (1998), a sparse but quietly authoritative wall sculpture measuring 4 by 6 feet and resembling a rusty bed frame. Rather than evoking a restful place of slumber, this metal lattice bordered by chains hosts such objects as shovels, shackles, hinges and a hatchet, alluding to unspecified histories of violence in the name of the Yoruba god of iron.

“Material Girls” underscores various influences in many black women’s lives, from basket-weaving and quilting to the diasporic condition, spiritual worship and the natural world. But perhaps in asserting racial and gender-based explanations for the artists’ choices in the show’s supporting materials, the exhibition runs the risk of undermining the value of the works as part of a larger conversation about contemporary art.

Photo: View of Renée Stout’s installation The Thinking Room, 2005; in “Material Girls” at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum.