Last year, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art asked five artists to reconceptualize local history through public monuments scattered across the city. Multimedia artist Ada Pinkston chose as her subject Biddy Mason (1818–1891), a formerly enslaved woman whose career in medicine and real estate made her a pillar of Los Angeles’s first Black community. The Open Hand is Blessed is best experienced as the artist intended: over the water with the skyline in the background at Magic Johnson Park in South L.A. You can also see it from your living room using Snapchat’s augmented reality technology on a smartphone.
This is a new model for public art. Mason emerges suspended in a planetary sphere and orbited by photographs of historic Downtown Los Angeles, a herd of wild horses, and a flock of birds. The orb itself, colored in cosmic purples and sea blues, features Pinkston’s signature graphic patterns, while the symbols of freedom that circle it have been gleaned from the archives that hold fragments of Mason’s life.
Pinkston’s title for the work borrows from a saying attributed to Mason: “If you hold your hand closed, nothing good can come in. The open hand is blessed, for it gives in abundance, even as it receives.”
Mason’s remarkable life, half in slavery and half as a freedwoman, spanned most of the 19th century. Born in 1818 in Georgia’s Cotton Belt, she was forcibly transported as a young woman to Mississippi, then Utah, and finally Southern California. As Kevin Waite’s recent monograph explains, although California was a “free state” when it became part of the United States in 1850, “slave marts” of Native Americans were flourishing and the California Fugitive Slave Act legally enshrined the rights of out-of-state slaveowners. Mason worked in bondage in San Bernardino County for five years until she was taken into protective custody and then testified in court about her condition. Days later, at 37 years old, Mason became a free woman.
At her death in 1891, after a prosperous career as a nurse, apothecary, and savvy purchaser of Los Angeles real estate, she was among the wealthiest women of color in the United States. And Mason stood by her aphorism, giving generously to charities, schools, and hospitals. With her wealth, valued at an estimated $300,000 (the equivalent of just under $9 million today), she cofounded the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles, also known as FAME Church.
Biddy Mason’s legacy has been recognized and celebrated in many forms. Her accomplishments have survived through her descendants and institutions and charitable acts, including the Biddy Mason Charitable Foundation established in 2013. Mason’s journey across the country is commemorated in the 80-foot-long concrete wall on the southside of the Bradbury Building in Downtown L.A., and she is the subject of academic scholarship, most recently by historians Sarah Barringer Gordon and Kevin Waite, who have received a collaborative grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to research her life.
Mason’s legacy has also endured in multiple artworks. Beyond The Open Hand is Blessed, three other artistic representations of Mason exist — in three different mediums, made by three different artists, with over 100 years between the first and the most recent. Each represents Mason in the years after her emancipation. These artworks were produced in the 1870s, 1930s, and early 2000s, respectively: a photographic portrait that Mason herself most likely commissioned; a WPA mural, which currently faces removal from UC San Francisco’s campus, where it had been displayed for nearly a century; and a contemporary oil painting by world-renowned artist Elizabeth Colomba.
Sometime in the 1870s, Biddy Mason sat for the first and only known portrait produced during her lifetime. Her forward gaze seems to insist that her likeness be captured in an honest and direct way. Frederick Douglass, the most photographed person of the century, wrote of photography in 1861: “Men of all conditions and classes, can now see themselves as others see them.” Douglass understood photography’s self-fashioning potential and argued that it was a key development for liberation of Black men and women. Also in the 1860s, the abolitionist Sojourner Truth copyrighted her image as pocket-sized photographs of herself. Truth had these “cartes de visite” imprinted with the text “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance,” and the sale of her image funded her speaking tours and activism. Just as her freedom suit is emblematic of hard-won emancipation, so should Mason’s decision to sit for a photograph, to have her likeness committed to history, be understood as a political action.
There is much that seems ordinary in Mason’s portrait. Her facial expression is unadorned, as are her dress of dark cloth and the plain background behind her. Saidiya Hartman, writing about photography’s ability to reflect Black women’s experience in the late 19th century, put it forcefully: for a woman like Mason, Hartman writes, “[b]eauty is not a luxury; rather it is a way of creating possibility in the space of enclosure, a radical art of subsistence.” We are left with an image of Mason that is both empowered and self-possessed and resists sexual objectification.
Mason was photographed wearing a silken ribbon fastened with a brooch. At the time, it was common for African Americans to be photographed in costume and with props used to emulate whiteness, a practice Frederick Douglass abhorred and one that Mason clearly resisted. The brooch, adorned with the cross of Saint George, is doubly representative of the possibilities Mason found and cultivated in her faith and in medicine. Saint George’s cross was a well-known symbol of unselfish service, worn by many nurses in the period. In 1872, Mason, alongside her son-in-law Charles Owens and several other Black men, founded the first African American church in Los Angeles. Mason donated land on Spring Street for the church, and she continued to provide for her community through the care of orphans and the impoverished.
If one arm of Mason’s cross embodies her religious and charitable commitments, the other symbolizes Mason’s perseverance in the medical field. Mason was hired as a nurse by Doctor John S. Griffin, a formally trained, prominent medical practitioner in Los Angeles. She became renowned as a trusted healer. Four decades after her death, it was her capacity to heal and bring comfort that likely inspired Bernard Zakheim to include her in his mural at UC San Francisco’s medical school, the second representation we have of Mason.
Zakheim was born in Poland to a Hasidic Jewish family in 1898. After fighting for Poland against Germany in World War I, he moved to San Francisco. He spent some time in Mexico studying under Diego Rivera and then returned to California and became a key figure in the San Francisco Artists and Writers Union during the Great Depression. Zakheim and other activists lobbied for New Deal funding through the Federal Art Project (FAP) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). They created murals and other public art throughout the city.
In 1936, with financial support from the FAP and WPA, Zakheim completed a 10-panel fresco in UCSF’s Toland Hall depicting the “History of Medicine in California.” The frescoes include depictions of Native Americans, Mexicans, and African Americans, alongside white practitioners of “modern medicine.” The murals synthesize this diverse history into a single whole that sheds light on the labor and expertise of workers who otherwise would be excluded from both Californian and medical history.
Mason occupies center stage in a main panel. She is shown tending to a patient laid out on a stretcher. Surrounded by white men, Mason gazes down at the patient with care, contrasting the dispassionate stare of the doctor, Griffin, on her left. Unlike the thicker cloth worn in her photo, Mason wears a patterned dress and an apron of a lighter material. She also sports a striped headwrap, much like a crown, tied at the top of her head, leaving her face and neck exposed.
While the slave stereotypes of “Mammy” show Black women with a headscarf, headwraps were one of the few ways enslaved women could fashion themselves. Some slave codes required head coverings, but headscarves served both a practical purpose of protecting hair from the extremities women encountered under severe labor conditions and a symbolic one of denoting status and self-expression.
Some scholars have speculated that Mason’s patient was stricken with malaria; it is more likely that Zakheim depicts a scene from Los Angeles’s smallpox epidemic, which ravaged the city in the 1860s and the 1870s. Another part of the mural depicts Native Americans helping white doctors inoculate someone with a smallpox vaccine. In the mural, Mason covers the patient while Dr. Griffin opens one eye. Smallpox produced a red painful pustule rash all over the body. Patients were often transported unclothed. The disease also led to severe ocular complications, often resulting in the loss of one or both eyes.
Mason likely learned much of her medical expertise not from white doctors but from other Black women. Enslaved women were often experts in midwifery and botany. Fluid cross-cultural medical exchanges took place on the plantation, and Mason would have brought that diasporic knowledge with her across the country.
Biddy Mason, Elizabeth Colomba’s 2006 painting, shows her at an apothecary table with a mortar and pestle in front of her, and a shelf of glass jars and tinctures beside her. To her left is a window through which muted sunlight casts elegant shadows across the portrait. Behind her is a map of the United States bisected by Colomba’s framing, drawing attention to the American West that Mason was forced to journey across. The lighting evokes the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, suggesting that the violent expropriation of the Atlantic trade in Vermeer’s paintings can be seen here as transcontinental.
With this work, as with her other portraits and, notably, her participation in the foundational 2018–2019 show Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse Today, Colomba renders visible the erasure of Black women from art history by staging these historical figures as the protagonists of scenes traditionally reserved for Western European male subjects and their portraitists. Mason wears a sumptuous black frock with a wide lapel and ballooned professional sleeves. At her throat, a decorative brooch crowns a trail of carefully polished buttons. Mason wears this uniform not without its distinguishing elegance, a marker of her high status, and regards the viewer with a steady gaze.
In late 19th-century Los Angeles, medical quacks were common. At the same time, there was a surge of women who offered their expertise and services to the community. Mason was among the most successful, and in addition to her property investments, she made money helping people as a nurse, healer, and midwife. This success was not the result of advertising farfetched cures in the papers but of using knowledge gathered throughout her life and establishing her practice. From within the portrait, a duality emerges. On one hand is the ugliness and violence of centuries of slavery. On the other is Mason’s triumph in a racist system, which, by design, was meant to thwart celebrations of her life as a free woman at every turn. Mason was a former slave and a Black woman, an extraordinary individual and a community member, a woman of faith and a medical expert, a businesswoman and a philanthropist.
Though they were made in material form, it has been almost impossible to see these known portraits of Mason in the flesh. While the original photograph of Mason is preserved in UCLA, available to the public upon request, the UCSF murals are slotted for permanent removal. Although it has provided the financial means to support artists like Pinkston, Snapchat’s sponsorship of LACMA’s latest exhibition continues to raise questions about profit and access in the art world. It is unclear who owns Pinkston’s digital work, not to mention what will happen to The Open Hand is Blessed if and when the exhibition closes.
The termination date has already arrived for the WPA murals. Citing the age of the building, UCSF plans to demolish Toland Hall as part of their $3 billion expansion. On June 4, 2020, a private law firm representing the university informed the Zakheim family that they had 90 days to provide UCSF with a proposal to relocate the murals at their own cost (estimated at $8 million). Failure to raise the money, threatened the legal counsel, would result in digitization of the murals and their ultimate destruction.
After a full year of little to no communication, following immediate public outcry — most poignantly from Mason’s and Zakheim’s descendants — and a letter from the US General Services Administration pointing out that UCSF cannot legally destroy federal property, the university finally pledged to remove and store the murals at an undisclosed location. They have also created a Toland Hall Murals Task Force to begin discussions over where the murals should be publicly housed. Of 11 task force members, 10 are affiliated with UCSF, and none are members of the Zakheim family or descendants of Biddy Mason. Despite a recently issued restraining order, there is still no guarantee that the murals will be appreciated for generations to come.
In an unpublished interview with American Jewish History from 1982, Zakheim emphasized that “art is a weapon” that must be used “for the oppressed […] for the people.” His words echo in the present. As Pinkston noted in a panel discussion hosted by LACMA, she too hopes her work tells stories from the past that have deliberately been erased by “creating spaces for these voices to be heard and seen.” Colomba’s portrait is now, if only temporarily, on view for the public. You can see it brilliantly displayed in LACMA’s new, in-museum show Black American Portraits, on view until April 17, 2022. There, Biddy Mason hangs alongside nearly 150 other works celebrating and commemorating Black protagonists. The artworks of Biddy Mason represent a Black woman with a monumental legacy. They reveal the long history of Black women’s self-empowerment and the struggle to commemorate their lives across two centuries of American history. And they reveal that without preservation, true public access, and historical education, representation is not enough.
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Arielle Xena Alterwaite is research specialist for the Biddy Mason Collaborative and a PhD candidate in history at the University of Pennsylvania where she works on enslavement and emancipation in the Atlantic World. She is currently writing her dissertation on financial debt and the abolition of slavery in Haiti.