Editor's note: The following 2005 essay was written by Marcin Aleturowicz, Graduate Research Assistant, University of Arizona Museum of Art for the exhibition Persistent Memories: African American Art From the University of Arizona Museum of Art Collection being held February 12 - March 27, 2005 at the Museum. The essay is reprinted with permission of University of Arizona Museum of Art . If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact University of Arizona Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Persistent Memories: African American Art From the University of Arizona Museum of Art Collection

by Marcin Aleturowicz

 

The works by African American artists in this exhibit are from several different generations in the 20th century. They all, however, share histories and traditions that shape much of their work. Over time, African American artists developed a black aesthetic involving a command of mainstream artistic traditions while at the same time exploring their dual cultural heritage. These artists investigate a wide range of subjects including spiritualism, folk art, music, history, politics, and the human figure. Their subjects are richly articulated using varied approaches to abstraction, realism and surrealism. The sheer range of themes and styles communicates these artists search for cultural identity, for self-discovery and for self-understanding.

Two seminal events in the 20th century offer an understanding of the black aesthetic within the larger social and cultural framework. The first was the New Negro movement, also known as the Harlem Renaissance, of the 1920s, and the second was the civil rights and black cultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s. From 1919 to about 1929, Harlem, New York was a positive and uplifting place for African Americans where diverse artistic personalities connected through literature, music and visual arts relating to the political, social and economic reality of being black in America.

One artist who benefited from the encouraging atmosphere of the Harlem Renaissance was Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000). Lawrence was educated and raised in Harlem. During the 1930s he met important artists and writers including the sculptor, teacher and activist Augusta Savage (1892-1962) and the philosopher and aesthetician, Alain Locke (1886-1954). Locke's book The New Negro (New York, 1925) although primarily political and literary, remains an eloquent history of the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance. Like his mentors, Lawrence took on subjects that documented black history. The narrative structure of his paintings is emphasized through the use of historical quotations and exaggerated perspective. Such devices underscore the importance of the common man and his efforts both individually and collectively to struggle for a better life. (right: Jacob Lawrence, Diners (also Cafe Scene), 1942, gouache on paper. From the University of Arizona Museum of Art Collection. Gift of C. Leonard Pfeiffer)

The civil rights and black cultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s provided inspiration and focus for African American artists. The commitment to civil rights by Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) provided leadership and empowerment. Their assassinations brought to African American visual artists a new level of political consciousness and commitment that they captured in startling diversity.

The work of Sam Gilliam (born 1933), Robert Colescott (born 1925), and Renée Stout (born 1958), for example, clearly demonstrate this diversity of subjects and styles. Gilliam's evocative "draped canvases" of the 1960s were the result of his metamorphism through the Abstract Expressionism and Washington Color Field movements. He worked to situate himself through multiple Western movements, but always systematically recalled his African and African American heritage. His works from the late 1970s onward, like Covington, 1976, possess a rhythmic patchwork quality reminiscent of African American "crazy quilts" of the deep South and asymmetric West African textiles.

Robert Colescott uses humor to convey social and political messages. For decades Colescott's large scale paintings and prints have dealt with the history, virtues, and voices of American society, especially as they refer to the mistreatment or misunderstanding of his fellow African Americans.

Through a starkly different style Renée Stout invokes imagination through folk art, myth and legend. Stout's work is rife with Afro centric themes. Her use of wood, bronze, ivory and found objects become symbols of power, spirituality and leadership. Her sculptures, such as Doublecross, 1997, are worked with salvaged "found objects" that oscillate between invented realities and personal experiences. Stout's goal is to shape fragments of memories and life experiences into a whole to better understand herself and, by so doing, to help others as well. (right: Renée Stout, Doublecross, 1997, mixed media. From the University of Arizona Museum of Art Collection. Museum Purchase with funds provided by the Edward J. Gallagher, Jr. Memorial Fund)

All of the artists whose work is on display share a dedication to making art and a commitment to the practice of art. The experiences of the 20th century, notably the Harlem Renaissance and the civil rights movement, provide a groundwork that motivates and inspires their work. Their art demands that we probe our own histories and memories in order to understand the complexity of our differences and provides a meaningful cultural context that celebrates our differences.

 

Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy:

American art from the Howard University Collection is part of a national touring exhibition. This major exhibition and conservation project was a three-year collaborative effort by a network of cultural institutions. It was organized by the Addison Gallery of American Art and The Studio Museum of Harlem, in association with the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, Howard University, and five other Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Howard Universsity Libraries presents videos in which Tritobia Benjamin, Ph.D. discusses African Amerian artists including Edward M Bannister, Romare Bearden, Alexander Calder, Elizabeth Catlett and many others.

University of California - Santa Barbara's Cultural Awareness Gallery presents video interviews with Professor Judith Wilson, Ph.D, Art Historian, specializing in African American Art, University of California, Irvine and Professor Albert Boime, Ph.D, Art Historian, University of California, Los Angeles speak on African American art. (click on the "Galleries" link to reach the page containing the video interviews.)

National Public Radio provides archives of its radio program series. In the Programs Archive page, listeners can click on Archives and search using the keywords."visual arts" to retrieve art-related shows. Many of the audio shows are accompanied by images of artwork being discussed. Black Religious Art from All Things Considered, April 13, 2001. On this Good Friday, Commentator Robert Franklin remarks on the growing role of art in African-American churches.

 

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rev. 9/19/05

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