The faces of these fighters should be familiar. In every panel of Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice, one can find the names and faces of prominent historical figures who have fought to make strides in the struggle for racial justice. The exhibition is on view in the Haley Gallery Sept 1-Dec 10, 2022.
Linking the past and present, William H. Johnson brilliantly illuminates the stories and notable accomplishments of many individuals—some of them his contemporaries—who have made significant changes in the world. Johnson infuses history with art throughout these works, using symbols, flags, and a storyboard-like approach to create realistic depictions of this cast of freedom fighters. This exhibition highlights Johnson’s many accomplishments as an artist, but also pays tribute to the difficult history that has shaped this nation. These paintings honor Johnson’s heroes, who collectively over the course of some 200 years changed the lives of countless individuals across the globe.
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. All artworks are from the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum; gift of the Harmon Foundation.
Johnson was born in 1901 in Florence, S.C., only 36 years after the end of the American Civil War. Harriet Tubman was still alive at the time of his birth. At 17 years of age, he left the Jim Crow South for New York City to become an artist. There he worked hard and gained admission to the National Academy of Design. By 1926, he was winning multiple awards for his work. Like so many other aspiring artists of his generation, he moved to Paris.
After living in Europe for many years, Johnson returned to New York around 1938. His style of artwork transformed from expressionistic landscapes and portraits to focus on African-American life at home. This series is some of the last work Johnson completed.
Johnson showed the Fighters for Freedom series only twice. It was on view at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library during National Negro History Week in 1946, and in 1947 in Copenhagen under the title For Freedom and the U.N. Although individual panels appeared in exhibitions from time to time, the group as a whole has not been seen in the United States for nearly 75 years.