African-American art's new dawn

After nearly a century of low visibility, the work of black American modernists is finally having its moment in the sun.

November 21, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

For most of this century, the visual arts of African-Americans were relegated to the sidelines of mainstream exhibition and criticism. While cultural critics acknowledged the African-American contribution in music and, to a lesser extent, literature -- the blues, jazz and its popular offshoots and the literary flowering of the Harlem Renaissance -- until recently the large and important body of African-American painting, sculpture, photography and printmaking has remained virtually invisible to most white Americans.

That invisibility has begun to be lifted as a result of important exhibitions of African-American art since the 1970s and 1980s, including groundbreaking studies by painter and University of Maryland, College Park scholar David Driscoll, whose books and traveling exhibitions refocused critical and popular attention on these long-neglected works.

The most recent efforts have involved the vital issues of preservation and conservation of African-American artworks, many of which suffered serious physical deterioration over the years. Those efforts are the centerpiece of "To Conserve a Legacy: African American Art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities," a landmark exhibition that opened yesterday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington.

Presenting an extraordinary selection of American paintings, prints, drawings, photographs and sculpture, the exhibition features works by Aaron Douglas, Arthur Dove, Lois Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Steiglitz, among others.

The exhibition is the result of a joint project organized by the Addison Gallery of American Art and the Studio Museum of Harlem to conserve, document and present more than 150 works of art collected by the nation's historically black colleges and universities.

Historically, the marginalization of African-American visual arts has been part and parcel of America's cultural racism that denied human dignity as well as equal legal status to Americans of African descent.

African-American art has been since its inception a protest against the dehumanization of African peoples that served to justify first slavery and later the humiliating second-class status black Americans were forced to endure well into the second half of the present century.

The dehumanization of African people was endemic to white-constructed images of black people throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Through drawings, photographs, motion pictures and advertising, these ubiquitous images were as embedded in the visual culture of white America as were commercial brand names and the faces of Hollywood film stars.

In this visual landscape, African-Americans were portrayed as, at best, comically incompetent figures incapable of shaping their own destiny. At worst, they were depicted as threatening, half-savage creatures from whom society had to be protected by the most aggressive, violent means.

From the beginning, African-American visual artists sought to counter these racist stereotypes and the culturally sanctioned images through which they were purveyed.

During the era of Reconstruction after the Civil War, gifted painters such as Henry Ossawa Tanner and Robert S. Duncanson produced hundreds of pictures in which African-Americans were portrayed as fully human beings with complex emotional and intellectual lives every bit equal to those of whites.

Such images were first collected by the schools established for freed slaves that would evolve into today's black colleges and universities.

The first major, publicly accessible collection of African-American art was housed at the museum of the Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, in Hampton, Va., founded in 1868 specifically to educate former slaves and free blacks.

Other collections were established at Clark University in Atlanta (now Clark Atlanta University), at Tennesee's Fisk University, at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Ala., at North Carolina Central University in Durham and at Howard University in Washington.

The great migration of blacks from the rural South to the urban, industrial North that began around the turn of the century provided a powerful stimulus to black artists' and writers' efforts to reclaim black control over images of African-Americans.

The Harlem Renaissance witnessed a great flowering of African-American arts as millions of new immigrants to the city sought expression in images of their conditions of life in the urban North.

The city represented not only economic opportunity and freedom from the rigid racial constrictions of the South, but also the possibility of new forms of artistic and cultural expression and the forging of a new identity -- aspirations summed up in the phrase the "New Negro," coined by the writer Alain Locke to express the migrant's desire to reclaim control over the way they were portrayed to the larger society.

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