Les Fétiches

Media - 1990.56 - SAAM-1990.56_1 - 67567
Copied Loïs Mailou Jones, Les Fétiches, 1938, oil on linen, 25 1221 14 in. (64.754.0 cm), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase made possible by Mrs. Norvin H. Green, Dr. R. Harlan, and Francis Musgrave, 1990.56

Artwork Details

Les Fétiches
25 1221 14 in. (64.754.0 cm)
Credit Line
Museum purchase made possible by Mrs. Norvin H. Green, Dr. R. Harlan, and Francis Musgrave
Mediums Description
oil on linen
  • Figure group
  • Dress — costume — mask
Object Number

Artwork Description

Five overlapping masks from different African tribes convey a mysterious spiritual dimension summoned by ritual dance. Jones came from a comfortable Boston background, and she did not experience the racial discrimination that was common before the civil rights years until she lived in New York and Washington. When the Corcoran Gallery gave her an award in 1941, she sent a white friend to claim it, rather than risk having it rescinded.

Jones spent many summers in France, where she enjoyed the same artistic and intellectual freedom as her peers. When her Paris teachers questioned the African themes in her paintings, Jones answered readily: if masters like Matisse and Picasso could use them, she said, "don't you think I should?" Jones taught at Howard University for many years thereafter, encouraging her students to travel to Africa to understand its art. The multiple masks and vivid red fetish figure suggest the artist's effort to draw strength and protection from her cultural heritage in the face of prejudice.

Exhibition Label, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2006


Media - 1967.129 - SAAM-1967.129_1 - 65164
Artist to Artist
October 1, 2021May 18, 2025
Artist to Artist features paired artworks, each representing two figures whose trajectories intersected at a creatively crucial moment, whether as student and teacher, professional allies, or friends.

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Side by side artworks. On the left: a painting with African mask references. On the right: a black sculpture, also with African mask references.
The lives of Loïs Mailou Jones and Elizabeth Catlett intersected briefly but formatively in the 1930s at Howard University