Gibbes Museum to exhibit Smithsonian collection of William H. Johnson works

A Black artist with South Carolina roots is the focus of the Gibbes Museum of Art’s major spring exhibition.

Harriet Tubman | ca. 1945 | William H. Johnson, American, 1901-1972. | Oil-on-paperboard | 28 7/8 x 23 3/8 | Click to enlarge.

The Charleston museum is set to present Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice from Jan. 21 until Aug. 7.

This exhibition brings together 28 paintings by the South Carolina born artist, which have not been seen together for almost 75 years. Organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the exhibition will premiere at the Gibbes before a national tour. Additionally, the Gibbes will host special programming and an accompanying exhibition, A New Deal: Artists at Work, which includes works from the museum’s permanent collection by artists like Johnson that benefitted from the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Program in the 1930s.

“Nearly 50 years ago, the Gibbes exhibited a collection by William H. Johnson – which was the first solo exhibition by a Black artist at the Gibbes,” Angela Mack, executive director of the Gibbes Museum of Art, said. “We are proud to once again showcase the work of this great American artist, who was born in South Carolina, and reflect on our commitment to feature artists from diverse backgrounds and experiences.”

Drawn entirely from the collection of more than 1,000 works by Johnson given to the Smithsonian American Art Museum by the Harmon Foundation in 1967, this exhibition is the first-ever presentation of this series in Johnson’s home state of South Carolina. William H. Johnson painted his “Fighters for Freedom” series in the mid-1940s as a tribute to African American activists, scientists, teachers, performers and international heads of state working to bring peace to the world. Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice celebrates these fighters and their accomplishments while still acknowledging the realities of racism, violence and oppression that they faced and overcame. This series includes some familiar figures—Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, Marian Anderson and Mahatma Gandhi—as well as other lesser-known individuals whose equally-important determination and sacrifice have been eclipsed over time.

The Gibbes will host these special programs to further analyze the themes in Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice:

  • Image Matters: Picturing Political and Cultural Leaders, Feb. 17
    The Gibbes will host a virtual discussion about the influence of visual culture on how the population remembers and regards both contemporary and historical political and cultural leaders. For more information, visit
  • Gibbes on the Go: Florence County Museum, Feb. 22
    Discover more about William H. Johnson in his hometown of Florence with the Gibbes. Curator Stephen Motte will lead guests on a special tour of Florence County Museum’s Kindred Spirit: The Personal Worlds of William H. Johnson. For more information, visit
  • Mightier Than the Sword: Writing into History, March 10
    Inspired by the exhibition, Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice, and in partnership with local, woman-owned bookstore Itinerate Literate, the Gibbes will discuss the historical influence of written discourse on social justice movements. For more information, visit
  • Now Let Me Fly: Songs of Freedom and Transformation, March 31
    Musical performances from New Muse will give voice to the heroic figures portrayed by William H. Johnson in the exhibit Fighters for Freedom. Guests will listen for hidden messages in songs from the Underground Railroad, hear new songs of freedom and transformation and lift their voices in call and response. For more information, visit
  • Literary Gibbes Book Club Discussion, April 9
    Inspired by the works in Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice, the Gibbes will lead a discussion on acclaimed Congressman John Lewis’s stunning graphic novel “March.” For more information, visit

To accompany Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice, the Gibbes will exhibit A New Deal: Artists at Work. The museum is one of a select group of institutions across the country that houses works from the Federal Arts Project. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched his ambitious Works Progress Administration (WPA) programs that sent millions of unemployed Americans back to work, including more than 5,000 artists. From the WPA came the Federal Arts Project, which awarded opportunities to a diverse group of artists, including women, African Americans and recent immigrants from China, Russia and Germany. This monumental effort to put artists back to work resulted in a collection of artwork intended to capture the national spirit at the time and encourage creativity in the face of great challenges. A New Deal: Artists at Work is a collection of these works from a diverse group of artists during a very challenging time in American history.

Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from Art Bridges, Faye and Robert Davidson and the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation.