By Diana Turnbow, research assistant for the Smithsonian American Women's History Museum
Every two years, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery honors individuals who made transformative contributions to the United States and its people. In November, four women were honored with the Portrait of a Nation Award. On display now are portraits of civil and children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edelman; award-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay; and tennis champions and entrepreneurs Venus Williams and Serena Williams.
Learn more about these extraordinary women and their portraits.
Marian Wright Edelman
Civil rights lawyer and activist Marian Wright Edelman began working in the Mississippi office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) Legal Defense and Educational Fund in 1964. She was the first Black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar. Edelman soon became an advocate for children and families experiencing extreme poverty. She testified before Congress to convince key senators to further investigate economic conditions in the Mississippi Delta. She also advised Dr. Martin Luther King on his Poor People’s Campaign before his death in 1968.
Edelman founded the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) as an advocacy and research center in 1973, for which she served as director for 45 years. The CDF has worked to lift children out of poverty, protect children from abuse, and ensure children’s access to health care and education. The CDF has lobbied Congress in key legislative acts about children, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Head Start, Children’s Health Insurance Program, and the Child Tax Credit.
Colombian-born photographer Ruven Afanador photographed Edelman in 2013 for Essence magazine. In the portrait, Edelman wears pendants featuring Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. The pendant images are taken from portraits of Tubman and Truth in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection. The necklace links Edelman to earlier generations of Black women committed to freedom and justice.
Ava DuVernay is the creator of several acclaimed films and TV series. Her work includes the Academy Award-nominated film Selma, the Netflix documentary 13th, and the TV series Queen Sugar. She is the highest-grossing Black woman director in American box office history. DuVernay pushes Hollywood to be more inclusive by making and advocating for films in which people of color have fully realized lives. DuVernay created the short film, August 28: A Day in the Life of a People, for the 2016 opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Artist Kenturah Davis wanted to convey a sense of motion in the portrait. Davis took a long exposure photograph that captured DuVernay’s head moving from one position to another. This photograph became a reference for a larger drawing. Davis stated, “My goal was to make a dynamic image and Ava is a dynamic person.” Davis further personalized the portrait by literally building the drawing out of letters that formed the words of a message DuVernay’s father gave his daughter shortly before his death. DuVernay shared the message at the Portrait of a Nation Gala in November: “God’s grace is always granted. You can relax, go about your business. All things are possible for God just believe. Take a deep breath. Good luck.”
Watch Davis working in her studio and describing her process for DuVernay’s portrait in this video from the National Portrait Gallery.
One of the greatest athletes of all time, Serena Williams has won 23 Grand Slam titles and four Olympic gold medals. Twice in her career, Williams won all four Grand Slam tournaments—the French Open, Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open—in a year. As a businesswoman and social activist, Williams invests in women and minority-owned businesses. She works to build economic prosperity in underserved communities.
Williams learned to play tennis with her sister Venus on public tennis courts in Compton, California. The sisters were photographed with their father and tennis coach Richard Williams in Compton in 1991. This photograph is now part of the collection at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Williams worked with Nigerian-born artist Toyin Ojih Odutola on her portrait for the National Portrait Gallery. Odutola, whose work was recently shown at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, wanted to highlight characteristics that are often overlooked in depictions of Williams. Unlike photographers that captured the fierce competitor or glamorized her athletic body, Odutola wanted to show Williams’ joy and confidence. She told the New York Times, “I wanted to show her physique but also show her relaxed. I wanted to show her as a beautiful Black woman.”
Venus Williams challenged the culture of the tennis world with her power, athleticism, and confidence in her identity. In her long and accomplished career, Williams won seven Grand Slam titles and four Olympic gold medals. Off the court, Williams is an entrepreneur with her own interior and fashion design firms. She is also a minor owner (with her sister Serena) of the Miami Dolphins. She is an advocate for equal pay and mental and physical wellness.
Artist Robert Pruitt created a life-size double portrait of Williams. The first figure is Williams as a warrior wearing a raffia tennis skirt and a collar fashioned from the Wimbledon champion plate. The plate is inscribed with the names of African American tennis champions including Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe. The white beads surrounding the second version of Williams recall the beaded hairstyle she wore early in her career. This look is shown in a photograph of the Williams sisters by Annie Leibovitz in the museum’s collection. Pruitt shows Williams’ connection to her family and history by adding the birthstones of her siblings into the strings of the beads. Portraits of her parents appear in the white collar to which the beads are attached. The artist told The New York Times the double portrait is a dialogue between two figures “looking back at themselves, considering where they came from and where they’re going.”
These new portraits are on view at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery through October 23, 2023.
Diana Turnbow provides research and project support to the Smithsonian American Women's History Museum. She is invested in finding and sharing the stories of American women artists and makers.