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Afro Emblems

1950 Hale Woodruff Born: Cairo, Illinois 1900 Died: New York, New York 1980 oil on linen 18 x 22 in. (45.7 x 55.9 cm.) Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Alfred T. Morris, Jr. 1984.149.2 Smithsonian American Art Museum
2nd Floor, North Wing

Luce Center Quote

“I think all art, if it’s worth its salt, has got to be universal . . . Now it can be black art; it can be yellow art; white art; anything . . . But if it’s worth its while, it’s also got to be universal in its broader impact and its presence.” Woodruff interview, Archives of American Art, quoted in Hale Woodruff, 50 Years of His Art, Exhibition Catalogue, 1979

Exhibition Label

In Woodruff’s Afro Emblems, objects hovering in a field of blue speak of ancient times and people. Their forms – some calligraphic, others geometric – are loosely arranged into vertical columns, stacked as though on totem poles that record the history and oral traditions of a culture. Influenced by cave paintings, Egyptian tomb reliefs, pre-Columbian pottery, Melanesian totems, and African art, Woodruff makes a statement about the resonance of values, traditions, and spiritual beliefs among people from around the world and across time.

African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond, 2012

Luce Center Label

Hale Woodruff first grew interested in African art in the 1920s, when an art dealer gave him a German book on the subject. He couldn’t read the text, but enjoyed looking at the images; on a trip to Europe a few years later he bought African sculpture for a collection of his own (Hale Woodruff, 50 Years of His Art, Exhibition Catalogue, 1979). For this painting, he divided the canvas into rough rectangles, then filled each shape with an emblem inspired by Ashanti gold weights. These were used in traditional Ashanti culture to measure the weight of gold dust and were decorated with illustrations of folktales, proverbs, and social rituals. The bold black outlines and dashes of color stand out from the blue background, creating an abstract pattern that reflects the artist’s African heritage.




paint - oil

fabric - linen

About Hale Woodruff

Born: Cairo, Illinois 1900 Died: New York, New York 1980

More works in the collection by
Hale Woodruff