There are perhaps fewer than five professional African American figurative sculptors working in the United States at the present time. Tina Allen was one of them, and without a doubt, one of the most accomplished.
She was a black woman telling the story of African people through monumental bronze sculptures of Alex Haley, Tupac Shakur, and Sojourner Truth, and many others. Second only to master sculptor Ed Dwight in terms of quality and volume of work produced, Tina Allen’s sculptures have helped preserve the legacies of our rich African American tradition in ways that were previously only achieved in print or film. She was part of an ongoing movement in African American art to reclaim our heritage.
Her passing on Tuesday, Sept. 9, represents a significant loss to the sculpting community in general and the African American sculpting community in particular. It is a loss that will be felt by us, her contemporaries, and by the next generation of sculptors to come. It is a fact that Tina Allen was visible, and that her work can be seen throughout the United States. Yet, were Tina Allen a rap artist, or screen goddess such as Dorothy Dandridge, or Halle Berry, or perhaps even an athletic champion such as Venus or Serena Williams, we could be assured that at the height of her career she would not have been a news item regulated to the middle or back pages of a news report upon her passing.
Were she a celebrated figure for the importance that her work serves in helping us define our own reality, Tina Allen would have become a household name that would inspire a whole new generation of African Americans to pick up the gauntlet and move the conversation forward.
But such is the dilemma of a sculptor, who unlike a national sports figure or a prominent actor, for the most part remains invisible. There are no corporate endorsements, no high profile contracts for the African American sculptor. Not yet, at least.
It is generally expected that the genius of a sculptor’s work should speak for itself. Yet with Tina, she knew that this would not do. For her, the image of the humble sculptor toiling away, alone in some dark, and dusty studio only to be discovered decades after he or she was dead, did not, and must not exist. The “starving artist” image was a myth that Tina did not buy into.
Tina Allen was not passive. She was at times outspoken and direct, and some people criticized her for it. She may not even have been the most technically proficient of figurative sculptors, as a few of her contemporaries would readily agree. But Tina Allen “was” an accomplished artist. She was also in the house and wanted you to know it. Why? Because Tina Allen knew that the next generation of African American children would never know how high they could climb, or how far they could go unless they were shown.
Today, Tina’s legacy bears witness and beacons a whole new generation to pick up the mantle and stride forward. Tina’s statues are massive 12 and 14 foot bronze works that let each of us know what is possible. Like the statues of the ancient Egyptians, her sculptures will prove unbounded by space and time. They will be ageless reminders of her spirit. They will be a testament to her persistence of vision, and a declaration of her love for African people.
Tina Allen, we salute you, and we will miss you.
– Nijel Binns is an internationally acclaimed sculptor, and associate of Tina Allen’s since 1990. As President of Nijart International, a Los Angeles based fine arts sculpting firm, Nijel’s 16 foot “Mother of Humanity™” bronze monument is on permanent display at the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC) in Watts, CA.
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