High Museum of Art

Atlanta, GA





Narratives Of African American Art and Identity: The David C. Driskell Collection


The transformation of African American identity is brought vividly to life in the engaging exhibition "Narratives of African American Art and Identity: The David C. Driskell Collection" on view at Atlanta's High Museum of Art June 13 through September 24, 2000. Representing the work of more than 60 African American artists, the show is comprised of 100 paintings, prints, photographs and sculpture selected from the private collection of renowned artist, historian and scholar David C. Driskell, distinguished University professor of art emeritus at the University of Maryland and a Georgia native. (left: Jacob Lawrence, General Toussaint, 1986, From the Toussaint L 'Ouverture Series, silk-screen on paper, 29 1/2 x 18 1/2 inches, The David C. Driskell Collection)

"Narratives of African American Art and Identity" focuses on the complex unfolding of racial identity as evidenced in African American art and on the various strategies artists have used in the pursuit of aesthetic expression. The exhibition also serves to honor David C. Driskell, born in Eatonton, GA, for his work as a mentor to artists, collectors and historians and as a quiet catalyst in the evolution of African American art of the last century. The works on view reflect the rich saga of Driskell's life and his immeasurable impact on black culture and its importance within the American cultural landscape.

(left: Elizabeth Catlett (b. 1915), Sharecropper, 1968, linocut on paper, 17 1/2 x 16 1/2 inches, The David C. Driskell Collection, acquired 1973. © Elizabeth Catlett. Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

'Sharecropper" poignantly embodies the struggles and the dignities of black womanhood, a theme Elizabeth Catlett explored in much of her artwork.


Carrie Przybilla, the High's curator of modern and contemporary art, applauds Driskell's contributions to the art world: "David Driskell is undoubtedly one of the major forces in contemporary American art. As an accomplished artist and teacher, a recognized scholar and discerning collector, he has succeeded in disseminating wide recognition and appreciation for the artistic contributions of African Americans."

Driskell explains how he got started collecting art: "My teachers impressed upon me that collecting art was an affirmation of one's own participation in his or her own culture. I didn't start out with the notion that we [refers to his wife Thelma] had a mandate to build a major collection. We bought what we could afford, and in some cases, we exchanged works with other artists."

(left: Hale Woodruff (1900-1980),Two Figures in a Mexican Landscape, c. 1934, oil on canvas, 22 x 18 inches. The David C. Driskell Collection, acquired 1992)

In 1934, Hale Woodruff received a grant to study in Mexico. He apprenticed himself to the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. The influence of the master muralist and of Mexico's landscape and architecture is evident in this painting.


"Narratives of African American Art and identity: The David C. Driskell Collection" aims to facilitate an understanding and appreciation of the various ways in which shifting attitudes about race and identity are reflected in African American art, how African American art is understood by audiences, and how and by whom it is collected.

The exhibition is organized around five themes that trace a chronological narrative of 100 years of African American art. The themes are: "Strategic Subversions: Cultural Emancipation, Assimilation and African American Identity (1880-1920)," "Emergence: The New Negro Movement and Definitions of Race (1920-1940)," "The Black Academy: Teachers, Mentors and Institutional Patronage (1930- 1960)," "Radical Politics, Protest and Art (1950-1980)," and "Diaspora Identities/Global Arts (1970-2000)."

The earliest works on view, by such artists as Robert Scott Duncanson, Edward Mitchell Bannister and Henry Ossawa Tanner, date from the 19th century. Early 20th century artists include important figures from the Harlem Renaissance era, among them Aaron Douglas, James Van DerZee, William H. Johnson, Meta Warrick Fuller and Hale Woodruff. Artist represented in the show who were active in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, many of whom are still working today, include such notables as Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, Loïs Mailou Jones, Romare Bearden, Alma Thomas, Roy DeCarava, Sam Gilliam, Keith Morrison, Melvin Edwards, Marge Humphrey, Terry Adkins and Martin Puryear.


Exhibition Themes

I. Strategic Subversions: Cultural Emancipation, Assimilation and African American Identity

During the 19th and 20th centuries, a select group of African Americans joined the ranks of established artists and pursued painting, sculpture, printmaking and photography as professions. Their works were exhibited, collected and highly regarded. In a period characterized by catastrophic racial divisions, the African American as "artist" was a testament to the humanity, culture, learning and sophistication of blacks who were forced to live and work in an otherwise relentlessly hostile environment.

Artistic achievement in the United States tended to be measured against accepted standards and styles of European art. Success for black artists was often linked to the ability to adjust personal styles to conform with Western European aesthetics. Increasingly, African Americans made the pilgrimage to Europe to study art in traditional academies. The mainstream achievements of these artists, several of whom are included in the exhibition, can also be considered "strategic subversions" in a prejudiced society, a phase of cultural emancipation through assimilation, and one step in the shaping of African American identity. Their successful careers quietly paved the way for African American artists who followed in the next decades.

II. Emergence: The New Negro Movement and Definitions of Race

In the first decade of the 20th century, increasing numbers of African Americans fled the oppressive racial and economic conditions of the South in search of promise and prosperity in the North. New York City's Harlem and Chicago's South Side neighborhoods became the environs for unprecedented levels of black business, intellectual life and artistic activity. These areas became home to an emerging black urban middle class. Concurrently, a surge of creativity, activism and black consciousness spread through these communities, sparked by cultural leaders who sought to define an African American identity separate from that of white America. Openly glorifying their distinction from other Americans, African Americans began to reclaim and embrace aspects of their African heritage devalued by two centuries of slavery.

An interrelated vocabulary of terms, symbols and motifs drawn from Africa and their collective experiences on the North American continent coalesced in the work of African American artists, writers, actors and musicians. As illustrated in the paintings and photographs of this section, black artists reveled in their culture and prosperity. They were breaking the yoke of European aesthetic traditions and embracing black culture, black history, black Christianity and black style.

Art of the New Negro Movement, often referred to as the Harlem Renaissance due to its extraordinary flowering in the Manhattan community, radiated self-confidence. The visual images presented in this section, as well as contemporaneous music, poetry and dance, celebrate the spirit of the black experience and weave the fabric of a new African American identity.

III. The Black Academy: Teachers, Mentors and Institutional Patronage

As a result of the success achieved by African American artists during the preceding decades, art gradually became a viable career. However, this professional pursuit was complicated by the exclusion of blacks from the mainstream training of artists. To remedy the situation, nontraditional systems of support emerged: a national network of teachers, educational institutions, community centers and arts organizations provided a foundation that may be referred to as the "Black Academy." African American artists, many of whom gained prominence during the New Negro Movement, became teachers and mentors. They provided a continuous flow of encouragement and instruction to a new generation of artists.

In addition, historically black colleges and institutions patronized black artists, developed impressive collections of African American art and preserved important elements of African-American material culture. Libraries, schools, civic organizations and churches throughout black communities supported local black artists and provided venues for exhibitions during a time when such opportunities were nonexistent in mainstream institutions.

Despite its immeasurable impact on the development of African American art in the 20th century, the "Black Academy" remains one of the least explored areas of African American art history. This exhibition highlights many of the artists whose mentoring were influential in the growing vitality of African American art. David Driskell, as artist, teacher, art historian and collector, epitomizes the invaluable role of the "Black Academy."

IV. Radical Politics, Protest and Art

Identity and race took on increasingly political dimensions as African American artists became galvanized by the civil rights, feminist and anti-war movements of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Many blacks sought to do much more than nurture a heritage and celebrate a culture. For them, art became a vehicle for social and political change as well as a means to contend with the widespread tension and frustration that plagued the nation. Some of the images in this show address the strength and endurance, both communal and individual, that African Americans acquired in their interminable pursuit of racial equality. Other works depict events and issues in U.S. history that were normally too politically sensitive for public discussion. Still other artworks protest conditions of racial violence and declare agendas for radical change.

African American artists at mid-century used various styles to express their political ideas. As seen in the exhibition, though, Social Realism was employed by many because it seemed particularly well-suited to depicting common experiences of economic, educational and political disenfranchisement. Other artists adopted the graphic style of posters or the power of expressive line, color and shape to convey personal messages. These works demonstrate an important phase in African American art. The artists used visual images to connect their personal and racial identity with the political and social issues they advocated.

V. Diaspora Identities/Global Arts

Concepts of collective identity shared among people of the African Diaspora (the voluntary and involuntary global dispersion of Africans throughout history) has expanded the definition of "African." Diaspora identity, as expressed in African American art, is described as the multitude of choices taken in the exploration of race and identity in the work of U.S.-born artists of African descent. As notions of what constitutes "black art" in the U.S. continued to evolve in the later part of the century, African American artists began to negotiate the once impenetrable boundaries of nationhood and race by using language derived from international sources. The globalization of the visual arts during the late 20th century resulted in a shifting of established ideological and cultural borders .

Explorations of diaspora identity mark the infusion of fresh perspectives into an ongoing discourse first established when Africans were brought to the Americas. Africa and the diaspora communities born from it -- remain a rich resource for African American artists whose individual voices defy rigid categorization. While the language of abstraction has become an expressive tool for some African American artists, others remain invested in narrative and figurative conventions.



"Narratives of African American Art and Identity" opened at The Art Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, October 22 to December 19, 1998. It has traveled to the Colby College Museum of Art, Waterbury, Maine (July 21 to October 17, 1999) and the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco (November 20, 1999 to February 12, 2000). Following its stay at the High Museum of Art, the exhibition will make its final stop at The Newark Museum in Newark, New Jersey (October 25, 2000 to February 25, 2001).



A 192-page catalogue, published by Pomegranate Communications, Inc., complements the exhibition with informative scholarly essays, color reproductions of all 100 works in the show, and brief entries explaining them. Biographies of the artists represented in the show and a comprehensive exhibition checklist complete the book.


Web Site

A comprehensive and engaging website, accessible by searching for "driskell collection" on the University of Maryland's web site home page http://www.umd.edu introduces the exhibition, its participants and venues to audiences via the Internet and offers helpful links to related web sites. Web site visitors can browse through the entire exhibition according to the show's themes. The site also offers extensive biographical information about David Driskell and the many African American artists represented in his collection, and it also provides a lengthy bibliography for those interested in learning more from books.


"Narratives of African American Art and Identity: The David C. Driskell Collection" is organized by The Art Gallery at the University of Maryland, College Park. In Atlanta, this exhibition is sponsored by Metropolitan Life Foundation.


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