Left: Lorraine O’Grady (photo Lelanie Foster / Trunk Archive); right: Emily Jacir (photo Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

Artists and activist Faith Ringgold, photographer and philanthropist Susan Unterberg, and literary critic Helen Hennesy Vendler have received the highest honors from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for their contributions to the arts. The announcement comes a week after eight artists — Emily Jacir, Tala Madani, Mary Miss, Lorraine O’Grady, Sandy Rodriguez, Cameron Rowland, Cauleen Smith, and Ouattara Watts received this year’s art awards. Recipients will be honored at a ceremony on May 24.

In a statement shared with Hyperallergic, the Academy notes that all three female honorees are artists and advocates in the field. “These three recipients have dedicated parts of their careers to furthering the work of other artists, be it through criticism and essays that taught a public how to read and understand poetry, art, and activism that helped make space for Black women artists, or innovative awards that have recognized hundreds of women artists,” the Academy’s president Kwame Anthony Appiah said.

Two years ago, Unterberg, a photographer with work in institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, revealed herself to be the artist behind Anonymous Was A Woman, a nonprofit that has distributed grants to women-identifying artists over 40 since 1996. She has won the Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts. 

Faith Ringgold (photo courtesy ACA Galleries)

Meanwhile, the Academy recognized Faith Ringgold with the Gold Medal for Painting for her work, which explores Civil Rights-era moments through painting, sculpture, and quilting, among other mediums. But the artist’s influence extends beyond the canvas: She has spent decades advocating for women of color in the arts. In 1970, Ringgold, critic Michele Wallace, and other Ad Hoc Women Artists’ Committee members protested in front of the Whitney Museum of American Art every Sunday for four months ahead of that year’s biennial to demand 50% representation of female artists. The Academy inducted Ringgold as a member in 2021. 

Painter and first-generation Chicana Sandy Rodriguez was awarded the Jacob Lawrence Award. Her work uses field and cultural research to create map-like paintings that portray the political histories of the southwest region in the United States and Mexico. The University of California, Santa Barbra, Art, Design, & Architecture (AD&A) Museum’s exhibition of her work, on view through March 2024, chronicles Central California uprisings involving communities of color from 1824 through the present. She will receive a prize of $10,000.

One of five recipients of the Arts and Letters Awards in Art, which grants each recipient $10,000, Lorraine O’Grady’s conceptual, critical, and performance art addresses hybridity and Black female subjectivity. The 88-year-old artist recently received renewed attention with a 2021 retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum and at a Museum of Modern Art exhibition for the Black-owned experimental gallery Just Above Midtown that closed on February 18. 

Sandy Rodriguez in the studio at Joshua Tree Highlands Artist Residency (© 2021 Elon Schoenholz; courtesy American Academy of Arts and Letters)

Another artist to receive that prize was Emily Jacir, whose films, photographs, installations, and performances often focus on themes of displacement and exile related to the Israeli occupation of Palestinians. For Where We Come From (2001-03), Jacir assembled 30 pairings of photographs, texts, and videos and asked participants both restricted from returning to Palestine or moving freely in the occupied state, “If I could do anything for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?”

“The Art Awards and Gold Medal Awards are an opportunity for members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters to honor and support the work of other artists,” Chief Curator and Director of Art Awards Jenny Jaskey told Hyperallergic in a statement. “Through our awards, members encourage their peers across generations.”

Lorraine O’Grady, “The Strange Taxi: From Africa to Jamaica to Boston in 200 Years,” (1991/2019), archival pigment print on Hahnemühle Baryta pure cotton photo rag paper, 50 x 40 inches (courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York © 2023 Lorraine O’Grady / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Taylor Michael is a former Hyperallergic staff reporter. Previously, she worked as a public programs coordinator at the National Book Foundation. She received an MFA from Columbia University School...

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