Black Heroes: Niki de Saint Phalle's Homage to Prominent African Americans

Niki de Saint Phalle, #23 Basketball Player, 1999, Photo by Thomas Marlow

Complete in 2000, Nike de Saint Phalle’s Black Heroes series was truly important to the family and life of the artist. Her work aims to bring joy to and inspire viewers, and this endeavor was no exception. As a child, Saint Phalle searched for heroes and cultural icons to look up to and wanted to instill the same ideas into her biracial great-grandson. Saint Phalle chose prominent and inspiring members of the African American community related to sports or music to highlight in the Black Heroes series, such as jazz musicians Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong, performer Josephine Baker, and athletes Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Tony Gwynn.

Niki de Saint Phalle, Louis Armstrong, 2000, Photo by Lech Juretko

#23 Basketball Player was created in 1999 and is intended to represent the incomparable skills of the NBA’s most famous athlete, Michael Jordan. The positioning of the sculpture directly references the infamous “slam dunk,” the defining maneuver of his career. The silver sculpture underneath the basketball player is a spirit that lifts him to unimaginable heights. #23 Basketball Player will be featured as one of the four sculptures featured in the New York Avenue Sculpture Project, on view April 28.

Ali Printz is an intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Ssssssssserpent Tree: Niki de Saint Phalle’s Modern Take on Ancient Myth

On April 28, NMWA will reveal the New York Avenue Sculpture Project! Four monumental mosaic sculptures by French artist Niki de Saint Phalle (1930–2002) will transform the New York Avenue median between 12th and 13th Streets, NW, into one of the most vibrant public art destinations in the District.

Niki de Saint Phalle, "Arbre Serpents (Serpent Tree)", 1999, © 2010 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved

Saint Phalle’s sculptures often explore archetypical representations of femininity repeated throughout myth and history. In Saint Phalle’s own words, “I use tales and myths as a springboard to create fantastic creatures of my imagination.”[1] References to ancient myth and history are often noticeable in her work: her voluptuous “Nanas” flaunt exaggerated female figures, calling to mind the many corpulent fertility goddesses venerated by ancient civilizations. In a more subtle fashion, Saint Phalle quotes universal female symbols with her frequent depiction of sinuous snakes. Although most famously associated with the Abrahamaic tradition of Eve in Genesis, depictions of serpents have often been used to personify feminine power, both good and evil, in a variety of cultures. Serpent Tree, 1999, one of the four sculptures selected for the New York Avenue Sculpture Project, portrays a marvelous creature with many coiling serpent heads, each poised to strike, projecting from a single base.

At first glance, Serpent Tree might remind viewers of the legend of the Greek hero Herakles who, for the second of his Twelve Labors, was tasked with killing the dreaded Hydra of Lerna: a loathsome, swamp-dwelling beast (often referred to in the feminine) with nine venomous serpent heads. Using his club to bash the Hydra’s heads one by one, Herakles was horrified to find that, after destroying one hissing head, two more grew in its place. Aided by his loyal nephew Iolaus, he eventually defeated the Hydra by quickly holding a torch to the place where one of the Hydra’s heads had been bashed in, thus preventing the growth of a new one.

Heracles and the Hydra, Paestan black-figure vase, 6th B.C., J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu

Heracles and the Hydra, Paestan black-figure vase, 6th B.C.; J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu

On a more positive note, one of the best-known examples of snake imagery associated with feminine power in the history of archaeology is the now-iconic Snake Goddess figurine, excavated in 1903 by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans at the Minoan site of Knossos on Crete. Dating to approximately 1600 BC, the faience statue, now housed at the Herakleion Archaeological Museum in Crete, depicts a woman clutching two writhing snakes in either hand. While the statue’s precise function is unknown, the figurine’s bare breasts hint at an association with fertility, as do the snakes—their periodic shedding of skin suggests the renewal of life. Along with the Minoans, many other ancient civilizations venerated goddesses depicted in snake form, including the Egyptians who worshipped Renenutet, goddess of nourishment, and Meretseger, protectress of royal tombs who spat venom on would-be tomb robbers.

Minoan "Snake Goddess" figurine, c. 1600 BC; Herakleion Archaeological Museum, Crete

As a student of art and history, Saint Phalle would have been familiar with these and many other mythic representations of powerful female figures.

Raphael Sikorra is Curatorial Assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.


[1] Niki in the Garden: The Extraordinary Sculptures of Niki de Saint Phalle at the Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago Illinois. Niki Charitable Foundation, (2007): 40.

Niki de Saint Phalle: Her Work

Niki de Saint Phalle, whose work will soon be on view as part of the New York Avenue Sculpture Project, worked in varying scale and a range of materials throughout her career. Though Saint Phalle did work in more traditional media such as oil paint, she first gained the attention of the art world in 1961 through her Tirs or “shooting paintings.” Through these works, she expressed her anger toward patriarchal power and conservatism. To create her Tirs, Saint Phalle filled containers with paint and embedded them in plaster assemblages—three dimensional collages. Niki de Saint Phalle and others shot at the works with a rifle, bursting the containers, and sending paint down the surface of the plaster.

Saint Phalle’s Tirs illustrate that destruction can lead to creation, a principle she applied in subsequent mosaic sculptures with pieces of broken glass, ceramic, and mirror. She had discovered mosaic in the 1950s with visits to Antonio Gaudí’s Park Güell in Barcelona and Joseph-Ferdinand Cheval’s Le Palais Idéal in southern France and was inspired by the use of stone and mosaic work but also by their participatory nature. Saint Phalle wrote to her husband and fellow artist Jean Tinguely about Gaudí and Cheval: “They represented the beauty of mankind…without any intermediary, without museum, without galleries.”

Queen Califia's Magical Circle Sculpture Park in Escondido, California

The New York Avenue Sculpture Project will feature four examples of her monumental public sculptures with mosaic done in polyester, mirror, ceramic, and glass. These already exuberant sculptures are further enlivened by the texture and reflection created by their mosaic surface. Some of her mosaic sculptures are single figures displayed along or in small groups but she also created large scale environments. Between 1978 and 1998, Saint Phalle and a team of collaborators worked on the Tarot Garden or Giardino Dei Tarocchi in Tuscany.  Inspired by the symbolism of the Tarot, 22 large scale sculptures were created. Some of the sculptures included interior space, and Saint Phalle lived and worked in The Empress for a period of seven years. In 2000, Niki de Saint Phalle began work on a second sculpture garden: Queen Califia’s Magical Circle in Escondido, California. Completed in 2003, a year after the artist’s death, the Garden consists of nine sculptures as well as architectural elements and landscaping “inspired by California’s mythic, historic and cultural roots.”   

You can save yourself a trip to Tuscany or Southern California by visiting the New York Avenue Sculpture Project, opening in late April 2010!

-Anna Allegro is Associate Educator at NMWA.

When NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling visited Queen Califia in 2008, she knew Saint Phalle's work would be the perfect sculptures to inaugurate the New York Avenue Sculpture Project.

Niki de Saint Phalle: Her Life

In Niki de Saint Phalle’s sculptures, light seems to dance as it reflects off mosaic surfaces made from glass, mirrors, and colored stones. The sinuous curves and massive forms of the sculptures themselves radiate a sense of movement and a tangible dynamism. Saint Phalle’s sculptures are individualistic, coinciding with the care-free attitude of the artist.

Niki de Saint Phalle painting Le Monde, c. 1981 Photo by Laurent Codominas © 2010 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved.

Saint Phalle was born in France and in her early years exemplified her defiant attitude through the creation of her art. While attending a convent school in her youth, Saint Phalle painted the fig leaves covering the classical sculptures on campus red, illustrating an early love of color and a disregard for following the rules. In her late teens, she married writer Harry Mathews, began a career as a fashion model, and also studied to become an actress. But in 1953, she was hospitalized for depression, and it was then that she began to delve into painting and collage.

Saint Phalle was a self-taught artist who experimented with creative techniques that were distinctly her own. Harry Mathews, her first husband, said, “When she found work she liked, she absorbed and devoured it; rather than analyzing it rationally, she remained instinctive and developed her intuitions patiently and observantly.”[1] Due to the unique methods Saint Phalle used to create her “Tirs” (Shootings) works of the early 1960s, she was associated with the Nouveaux Réalistes group in France, whose members included Jean Tinguely, who would become Saint Phalle’s second husband. In the mid-1960s, Saint Phalle began to focus on figures of women. She called these sculptures “Nanas,” which translates to “broads” or “chicks” in English. These works epitomize Saint Phalle’s fascination with both conventional and progressive ideas about femininity. The voluptuous figures allude to historical fertility symbols and are celebratory of the female form.

Niki de Saint Phalle shooting Tir tableau, parking lot on Sunset Strip Blvd., Los Angeles, California, on March 4, 1962 © 2010 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved. © Photo William Claxton

Saint Phalle died in 2002 but left behind a legacy of unique and fascinating works that explore a number of different themes including Animals, Totems, and Black Heroes. Come see Niki de Saint Phalle’s work at NMWA beginning April 28th. Visit www.nmwa.org/sculptureproject to learn more and find out how you can participate in the Opening Celebration!

Niki de Saint Phalle, Les trios grâces (The Three Graces), 1999 © 2010 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved



[1] “Portrait of a Woman; La Hachoir; Face/Self PortraitPortrait of a Woman; il: La Hachoir; il: Face/Self Portrait; Living With Niki.” Tate Etc.(Spring 2008): 44-51. Art Full Text, WilsonWeb (accessed March 11, 2010).

About the Author-Breezy Diether is currently an education intern at NMWA.

Contemporary Sculpture Dancing Down New York Avenue!

An artist’s rendering of the New York Avenue Sculpture Project

NMWA’s New York Avenue Sculpture Project is a bold new art installation that will beautify Washington for years to come. Through an innovative private-public partnership among NMWA, the DC Office of Planning, and the Downtown DC Business Improvement District (BID), sculptural works will line the medians along New York Avenue, NW, from Herald Square at 13th Street to Mount Vernon Square at 9th Street.

On April 28, NMWA will unveil the first installment of contemporary sculptures along New York Avenue from 13th Street to 12th Street, right in front of the museum. Upon the completion of all four phases in 2015, the sculpture project will provide a unique cultural attraction as the first and only major outdoor sculpture boulevard in the city. Each sculpture will remain on display for one to three years and then will be replaced by another artist’s work. NMWA hopes to create a dynamic space for the works of female artists to be displayed and celebrated.

The New York Avenue Sculpture Project will eventually stretch from NMWA at 13th Street to Mount Vernon Square at 9th Street.

The New York Avenue Sculpture Project’s goals align closely with the plans established for Washington, D.C., in 1791 by architect Major Pierre L’Enfant. L’Enfant envisioned the city with wide tree-lined avenues that connect open spaces and offer grand vistas. New York Avenue, when lined with important sculptures, will complement L’Enfant’s layout.

The first phase of the project features works from the oeuvre of French-born artist Niki de Saint Phalle: Nana on a Dolphin, 1998, L’Arbre serpents (Serpent Tree), #23 Basketball Player and Les trois grâces (The Three Graces), all from 1999. Each monumental sculpture is a splash of exuberant color that will revitalize downtown D.C. These 12- and 15- foot high figures were created with fiberglass then covered with mosaic glass, mirrors, and colored stones. Saint Phalle’s joyful works celebrate women, children, heroes, cultural diversity, and love.

Detail of Niki de Saint Phalle's Three Graces, 1999

Niki de Saint Phalle’s colorful Three Graces, 1999

Visit www.nmwa.org/sculptureproject to learn more and find out how you can participate in the Opening Celebration!