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date: 08 February 2023

African American art [Afro-American art; Black American art]free

African American art [Afro-American art; Black American art]free

  • Regenia Perry,
  • Christina Knight,
  • Ellen Tani,
  • dele Jegede,
  • Kelvin L. Parnell Jr.,
  • Bridget R. Cooks,
  • Jessica M. Ditillio,
  • Camara Dia Holloway,
  • Meaghan Walsh
  •  and Jenifer P. Borum

Updated in this version

updated and revised

Term used to describe art made by Americans of African descent from the 17th century through the present. While the crafts of African Americans before the end of the 19th century continued largely to reflect African artistic traditions (see Africa: Art of the African diaspora), the earliest fine art made by professional African American artists was in an academic Western style (see fig.). Since at least the early 20th century, African American artists have worked in myriad contexts, many of which blur the boundaries between fine and vernacular art.

Edmonia Lewis: Poor Cupid, marble, 686 × 349 × 311 mm, modeled c. 1872, carved 1876 (Washington, DC, Smithsonian American Art Museum); photo credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC/Art Resource, NY

I. Overview: c. 1600–2000.

1. Before c. 1920.

  • Regenia Perry, revised by Christina Knight and Ellen Tani

The first African artists in North America arrived in the 16th century as the result of the transatlantic slave trade, through which millions of Africans were forcibly displaced to the Americas under inhuman conditions. Before 1776 the work of enslaved African artists consisted largely of metalwork, ceramics, weaving, and making musical instruments, furniture, and clothing. Enslaved artists and artisans made significant contributions to colonial economies through their craftsmanship. In the Carolinas, they created a type of earthenware called colonoware (1500–1860s), possibly descended from West/Central African pottery. They also made undecorated earthenware pottery produced for domestic use and for trade.

David Drake (Dave), Jar Made by “Dave”, ceramic stoneware, 52.07 × 45.72 cm, 1862, National Museum of American History (accession number 1996.0344.01). Public domain.

Manufacturing restrictions imposed by the British were lifted after the American Revolution, and artistic production expanded during the Federal period (1790–1830). Some enslaved persons learned the trade or craft of their owner. For example, in the late 18th century, Moses Williams learned silhouette cutting and taxidermy from Charles Willson Peale, enabling him to work in Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia. The enslaved potters at Edgefield, SC, produced high-quality stoneware that was less expensive than that produced in the North. One notable ceramicist there, “Dave the Potter” (David Drake, 1801–1870s), made impressively large vessels for food storage that he often signed and inscribed with his original poems (see fig.). Edgefield wares also included Afro-Carolinian face vessels, anthropomorphic jugs rooted in the global tradition of effigy, which represent the integration of the original cultures of African-descended enslaved people to the larger communities to which they belonged. Enslaved African women, who were routinely assigned to laboring in the textile industry, merged their existing skills and knowledge of African textiles and piecework to fulfill the demand for quilt production. Those made for personal use reflected more dynamic patterning and color palette, as well as geometric and figural motifs that can be traced to West African iconography (e.g. Harriet Powers, “Bible Quilt,” 1895–1898; Washington, DC, N. Mus. Amer. Hist.). The Western artistic hierarchies, which distinguish utility from aesthetics, are not consistent with sub-Saharan African cultures, where sculpture, furniture, and textiles have functional, religious, and aesthetic value.

The first documented African American fine artist was Joshua Johnson, a portrait painter who practiced in and around Baltimore, MD, between 1775 and 1825. Possibly a former slave in the West Indies, he executed plain, linear portraits for middle-class local families (e.g. Sarah Ogden Gustin, c. 1798–1802; Washington, DC, N.G.A.); many of his sitters were Quakers. Only one of the approximately eighty-three portraits attributed to Johnson is signed, and none is dated. There are only two African American sitters among Johnson’s attributions. Among the second generation of prominent 19th-century African American artists were the portrait-painter William E. Simpson (1818–1872) of Buffalo, NY, Robert Douglass Jr. (1809–1887), and Douglass’s cousin and pupil David Bowser (1820–1900) of Philadelphia. Douglass, none of whose works survives, started as a sign-painter and then painted portraits as a disciple of Thomas Sully. Engravings and lithographs were produced by Patrick Reason (1817–1898) of New York, whose parents were from Haiti. His engravings included illustrations for publications supporting the abolition of slavery and also portraits (e.g. Granville Sharp, 1835; Washington, DC, Howard U., Gal. A.).

Throughout the 19th century, a number of African American artists—supported by sales of their work or by abolitionists—pursued fine art training abroad in Europe, specifically Paris and Rome, to study Classical art. Denied access to many American art schools, they sought direct opportunities to learn about neoclassicism, a style that was then gaining popularity in the United States. Julien Hudson (fl c. 1811–1844), one of the earliest documented African American painters in the South, studied in Paris (1831, 1835, 1837) before returning to his home town of New Orleans, where he taught art and painted portraits. His Self-portrait (1839; New Orleans, LA State Mus.) is the earliest surviving self-portrait by an African American artist. Executed in a neoclassical style, its intricate level of detail reflects Hudson’s training as a miniaturist. Jules Lion (1810–1866) also studied and practiced in Paris prior to returning to New Orleans, where he produced paintings and lithographs. He was also credited with introducing the daguerreotype to the city, where he was one of the earliest professional photographers.

Eugene Warburg (1825–1859) was among the better-known African American sculptors of the 19th century. Born a slave in New Orleans, he received an education and apprenticeship with French-born neoclassical sculptor Philippe Garbeille (c. 1818–1853). After opening a successful marble-carving business, he traveled to Europe in 1852, spending four years in Paris—with multiple entries in the Paris Salon of 1855—before settling permanently in the burgeoning community of American expatriates in Rome. Another member of this community was Edmonia Lewis, who trained in Boston before becoming the first professional African American sculptor. Born in upstate New York to a Haitian father and Native American (Ojibwe) mother, Lewis studied at Oberlin College and traveled to Europe in 1864, settling in Rome, where she produced such works as Death of Cleopatra (1876; Washington, DC, Smithsonian Amer. A. Mus.), a work exhibited to great acclaim at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial. In Rome she appreciated access to skilled stonecutters and sought refuge from the racial and gendered prejudice she experienced in the United States, recalling that “the land of liberty had no room for a colored sculptor” (Farrington 2017, 59).

Edmonia Lewis: Death of Cleopatra, marble, h. 1.6 m, 1876 (Washington, DC, Smithsonian American Art Museum); photo credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC/Art Resource, NY

The most important African American landscape painters of the 19th century were Robert S. Duncanson, Edward Mitchell Bannister, and Grafton Tyler Brown. Duncanson, who worked as an itinerant artist in Cincinnati and Detroit, was the earliest known professional African American landscape painter. He studied in Glasgow and traveled extensively in Italy, France, and England, as well as in Minnesota, Vermont, and Canada. He was the first African American artist to receive international recognition. Although Duncanson painted portraits and still lifes, he is best known as a Romantic realist landscape painter in the Hudson River school tradition. His largest commission came in 1848, when he painted eight large landscape panels and four over-door compositions in the main entrance hall of Nicholas Longworth’s mansion, Belmont (now the Taft Museum), in Cincinnati.

Bannister was the leading painter in Providence, RI, during the 1870s and 1880s and a co-founder in 1873 of the Providence Art Club, which became the nucleus of the Rhode Island School of Design. Born in Nova Scotia, he started by making solar prints and attended an evening drawing class in Boston. He is reported to have taken up painting in reaction to a newspaper statement in 1867 that Blacks could appreciate art but not produce it. His work consisted of poetic landscapes (e.g. Landscape, c. 1870–1875; Providence, RI Sch. Des., Mus. A.), influenced by Alexander Helwig Wyant and the Hudson River school, and his later works reflect an affinity with the French landscape painter François Millet and the Barbizon school as well as Impressionism. He was the earliest African American artist to receive a national award when he received a gold medal for Under the Oaks (now lost) at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876.

Brown, based in California, was first employed in San Francisco as a draftsman and lithographer whose work captured the rapidly developing Western frontier, also printing street maps and stock certificates, before turning to landscape painting. In his most productive years (1880s), he painted many Canadian landscapes and scenes of the American northwest while living in Victoria, BC; Oregon; and Washington. After 1891 Brown apparently ceased painting and in 1892 moved to St. Paul, MN, where he worked as a draftsman.

The best-known African American artist working in the 19th century was Henry Ossawa Tanner. His early paintings of the 1890s included African American genre subjects and reflect the realist tradition of Thomas Eakins and Robert Henri, studying under the former at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Like the majority of prominent 19th-century African American artists, Tanner went to Europe in 1891 for further training and to escape racial and professional discrimination: he remained in Paris for most of his career and developed a painterly style influenced by Symbolism. From 1903 he painted religious subjects, portraits, and landscapes inspired by his travels in the Middle East and North Africa, in an intriguing fusion of Realism and Impressionism rendered primarily in subdued blues and greens. He earned awards at the 1900 Paris Exposition, 1904 St. Louis Exposition, and the Paris Salon of 1906. He held his first solo exhibition of religious paintings at the American Art Galleries in New York in 1908, and in 1909 became the first African American to be elected to the National Academy of Design.

Major contemporary art exhibitions in New York at this time, such as that of the Eight (see Eight, the (ii)) in 1908 and the Armory Show in 1913, both held in New York, had little initial stylistic impact on African American art and excluded African American artists. In 1907 the Tercentennial Exposition in Jamestown, VA, included among the pavilions a “Negro Building,” in which exhibits focused primarily on African American crafts, carpentry, and inventions. Although there were 484 paintings and drawings, no works by prominent African American painters were included. The most important African American artist to be included in the Jamestown exhibition was the sculptor Meta Vaux Fuller, who was invited to design a series of historical dioramas depicting various aspects of Black life in America. In 1899 Fuller had traveled to Europe to study in London and Paris. There, she met Henry Ossawa Tanner, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and gained the approval of Rodin. W. E. B. Du Bois commissioned her to make a sculpture commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, signaling a turn to explicitly Black subject matter that prefigured the concerns of the Harlem Renaissance.

2. c. 1920–c. 1960.

The most significant African American stylistic and aesthetic movement of the early 20th century was the Harlem Renaissance or “New Negro” movement, which flourished in the 1920s and spanned the literary, visual, and performing arts. The Harlem district of New York became, during the decade, the “cultural capital of Black America,” known for a lively jazz scene, political activism, public scholars, and a thriving community of cultural elites. One of the earliest race-conscious cultural movement by African Americans, the Harlem Renaissance celebrated the achievements of African and Caribbean heritage, eschewing the dominance of European models as sources of cultural ideals, creating new avenues for self-expression. The spirit of the Harlem Renaissance was most eloquently expressed by Alain Locke’s essay, “Enter the New Negro,” included in his edited book The New Negro: An Interpretation (New York, 1925). An anthology of fiction, poetry, and essays on African and African American art and literature that included illustrations by artists, this text, originally a special issue of the magazine Survey Graphic, became the definitive text of the movement. In the pages of The Crisis, the journal of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), W. E. B. Du Bois promoted positive imagery of African Americans and supported affirmative cultural activities, regularly including poems, stories, and illustrations by Harlem Renaissance figures. Aaron Douglas and other prominent figures in the Harlem Renaissance incorporated lessons from African art in their work. Other significant artists who contributed to the movement included Meta Vaux Fuller; Palmer Hayden, who painted satirical images of life in Harlem; William E. Scott (1884–1964); and Malvin Gray Johnson (1896–1934). The best-known African American photographer of that period was James Van Der Zee, who photographed people and scenes in Harlem for more than fifty years and also served as the official photographer for the Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey during his frequent parades and rallies in Harlem.

Artists at this time enjoyed greater opportunities, patronage, and major financial support for artistic activities, significantly in the form of exhibitions and awards from the Harmon Foundation, the Barnes Foundation, and the Rosenwald Foundation. Founded in New York in 1922 by William E. Harmon, a white Ohio-born philanthropist and real estate developer, the Harmon Foundation began promoting African American achievements in eight fields in 1926, including cash awards for fine artists. Its inaugural Exhibit of Fine Arts Productions of American Negro Artists opened at International House in New York in January 1928, and its traveling exhibitions of all-Black artists held in the 1920s and 1930s introduced African American art to broad audiences, often for the first time. The works collected and exhibited by the foundation reflect traditional Western, naive, and modernist styles. The Foundation left an extensive legacy in the form of a large collection and vast archives of materials related to African American art in the first half of the 20th century. From 1925 onward, the Barnes Foundation in Merion, PA, invited artists to study its collection of African and modern artworks, and provided funding for additional training and travel, fueled by founder Alfred C. Barne’s ambitions to reform traditional art education. The Rosenwald Foundation, established by the founder of Sears, Roebuck & Co., supported school construction in the South and gave grants to artists engaged in social justice and communal arts projects. Many African American artists traveled to Europe with Rosenwald grant funding.

The stock market crash of 1929, which plunged the USA into the Great Depression of the 1930s, negatively impacted much of the activity of the Harlem Renaissance. To uplift the nation’s economy, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration (WPA: see United States of America, §VI), under which the Federal Art Project (1935–1943) provided employment, training, and support for many African American artists. One of its many beneficiaries was the Harlem Community Art Center (1938–1942), which offered art classes, events, and exhibition space for thousands of adults and children under the vision of its first director, sculptor Augusta Savage, who recognized the dire need for art education for the African American youth and working-class residents of Harlem. Among the center’s illustrious students were Jacob Lawrence, Ernest Crichlow (1914–2005), William Artis (1914–1977), and Norman Lewis, and it became a model for other arts-based community centers nationwide.

The early school of African American muralists reached its apogee during the 1930s, and numerous murals by African American artists were commissioned for schools, hospitals, banks, post offices, and other public buildings. These murals ranged greatly in style: such artists as Charles White and Hale Woodruff executed historical murals that showed the influence of Mexican social realism, for example the Amistad murals (1939) by Woodruff in the Savery Library in Talladega College, Talladega, AL, which depicted the well-known 1839 revolt. Other artists pursued a primitivist style, for example Aaron Douglas, whose murals of African life included elongated, angular figures with stylized features. Douglas’s study of the renowned collection of African and modern art in the Barnes Foundation in 1927 and his one-year residency and Paris in 1931 laid the groundwork for his unique synthesis of Cubism and African art. His most famous mural series, Aspects of Negro Life, was supported by the Federal Arts Program and installed at the Schomburg Center in Harlem in 1934. It chronicles African American history using a subdued, monochromatic palette and silhouettes that comprise shadowy allegorical tableaux. Charles Alston, a painter and sculptor, painted mural panels (1937) in the Harlem Hospital, New York, of African and modern scientific medicine in a style also characterized by expressively distorted figures. Some murals had themes that were not specific to African Americans, for example the mural panel by Archibald J. Motley, Jr., entitled United States Mail (1936) in the post office in Wood River, IL. Motley also made easel paintings of scenes from African, American, and even Parisian life, employing both a naive and a highly naturalistic style. Murals were also produced by such artists as the painter William E. Scott and the sculptors Sargent Johnson (1887–1967) and James Richmond Barthé, who carved reliefs with highly formalized figures. Barthé was also an accomplished painter and figure sculptor of Black subjects whose lithe presence and corporeal beauty reflected his intense interest in modern dance (e.g. Blackberry Woman, 1932; New York, Whitney). The sculpture of Sargent Johnson, celebrated in the first Harmon exhibition in 1926, was characterized by ingenuous figure studies in various materials such as porcelain, terracotta, and lacquered wood (e.g. Forever Free, 1936; San Francisco, CA, MOMA).

One of the most important national commissions of an African American artist in the 1930s was received by sculptor Augusta Savage, who created a large sculpture, The Harp (later called Lift Every Voice and Sing; painted plaster, h. 4.87 m), for the Negro Pavilion of the New York World’s Fair of 1939. A direct reference to the African American “national anthem,” which was inspired by James Weldon Johnson’s 1900 poem by the same name, it consisted of a receding line of singing figures arranged in the shape of a harp. The sculpture, cast in plaster and gilded to resemble bronze, was never permanently cast and was destroyed following the fair’s closing (see Dover 1969, pl. 72). Selma Hortense Burke was another African American female sculptor whose career blossomed during the 1930s and 1940s. In 1935 she received a Roosevelt Foundation Fellowship, and in 1943 she participated in a competition sponsored by the Fine Arts Commission of the District of Columbia to depict a bust of President Roosevelt. The bust, which was completed and unveiled in 1945, was adapted in 1946 for use on the American dime coin.

During and immediately after World War II, a new group of African American artists came into prominence. Such artists as Selma Burke, Charles White, and William H. Johnson, who had attracted attention before the war, continued their achievements. Charles White, for example, promoted the heroic contributions of major African American historical figures in his social realist mural Contribution of the Negro to American Democracy (1953) in the Hampton Institute in Virginia. White’s primary concern was the social dimension of his art. Johnson, who was influenced by Chaïm Soutine, worked in France, Denmark, and Norway before returning to the USA in 1938, where he taught at the Harlem Community Art Center for the next four years. His work during these years portrayed images of Black life in the USA in a style that combined Cubist colors and forms with specifically ethnic content. He incorporated the arts of Africa in the elongated necks and bodies of the figures, for example, in Going to Church (c. 1940–1944; Washington, DC, Smithsonian Amer. A. Mus.), which reflect the forms of Mali sculpture.

William H. Johnson: Going to Church, oil on burlap, 968 × 1121 mm, c. 1940–44 (Washington, DC, Smithsonian American Art Museum); photo credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC/Art Resource, NY

The work of Lois Jones also reflected the direct impact of the Harlem Renaissance, particularly the design motifs of African costume and masks (see fig.). Under the encouragement of Meta Vaux Fuller, Jones traveled abroad early in her career, regularly spending time in Paris, where she studied the relationships between Cubism and African sculpture, and later in her career, in Haiti. An accomplished textile designer when she was hired in 1930 to teach at Howard University, Jones’s decades-long tenure shaped the careers of many young artists and her lengthy career as a painter was committed to exploring African, Haitian, and African American themes in abstraction.

In the 1940s the impact of community art centers on training a younger generation of artists, exhibitions of African American art, and the rise of periodicals that celebrated the achievements of African American culture encouraged many African American artists. One key exhibition was Art of the American Negro, 1851–1940, assembled by Alonso Aden and Alain Locke and supported by the Harmon Foundation and the Works Progress Administration. A highlight of the American Negro Exposition in Chicago in 1940, the exhibition drew huge crowds as it presented the history of African American art from pre-emancipation to the present, divided into early, modern, and contemporary sections, with a gallery of African art that introduced visitors to the arts of the African diaspora. Prominent African American artists of this time were included, such as Elmer Simms Campbell (1906–1971), who contributed illustrations for such periodicals as Esquire, and the painters Romare Bearden, Eldzier Cortor, Frederick Flemister (1917–1976), and Horace Pippin, whose paintings included depictions of figures from the history of Black emancipation. William Artis, a pupil of Augusta Savage, produced highly naturalistic portrait busts. Also exhibited was a young Jacob Lawrence, a narrative painter who rendered everyday and historic scenes of Black life in a colorful palette with a flat and naive style, combining social realism with abstraction. His major work chronicled the Great Migration, when nearly 6 million African Americans left areas of the rural South for urban communities in the North between World War I and World War II, across sixty tempera panels (The Migration Series, 1941; Washington, DC, Phillips Col. and New York, MOMA). Many African American artists in the 20th century were children of migrants, who sought escape from racial hostilities in the South and better economic opportunities in the North; and cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York became major hubs for African American artistic communities.

During the 1950s African American art was dominated by two stylistic trends: gestural abstraction and realism. The realistic styles championed by Sargent Johnson and William Artis privileged storytelling and political subjects, centering African American people and themes as recognizable subjects. Others, like Hughie-Lee Smith and Eldzier Cortor, explored the psychological aspects of lived reality, blending figuration, planar composition, and abstract forms in equal measure. Some artists departed from this style and, believing that certain feelings and ideas were best conveyed through abstraction, engaged in contemporary Abstract Expressionism, often motivated by a belated interest in Cubism (most noticeable in the works of Charles Alston, Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff, and James Lesesne Wells). Painters Beauford Delaney and Norman Lewis worked directly in the Abstract Expressionist vein, elevating the formal elements of art—expressive brushwork, allover composition, and color—as the subject of the work. Delaney trained with John Sloan and Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League, and was active in the Harlem Artists Guild, a downtown–uptown connection that broadened his community. Known for his critically acclaimed abstract portraits, Delaney showed regularly in New York and maintained a close friendship with African American author James Baldwin, enjoying a major retrospective in 1978 at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Norman Lewis took classes with Augusta Savage at the Harlem Community Art Center, exhibited locally and nationally, and earned unlikely success among avant-garde circles in New York for his abstract compositions whose dynamic, calligraphic lines and contrasting color fields expressed the rhythm of city life. He was represented by a gallery, included in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1951 exhibition Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America, and was the only African American member of Studio 35, a group of avant-garde painters and critics that included Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, and Franz Kline. However, neither Lewis nor Delaney fully embraced Abstract Expressionism due to its persistent exclusion of minority, queer, and women artists.

3. c. 1960 and after.

Purvis Young: Untitled, acrylic on plywood with fibreboard, 1.03 × 1.23 m, c. 1988 (Washington, DC, Smithsonian American Art Museum); © 1987 Purvis Young/photo credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC/Art Resource, NY

In the 1960s and 1970s American society and politics were rapidly changing. New forms of artistic practice appeared in African American art based on continuing developments in abstract art and the urgent priorities of civil rights as well as the philosophy of Black Power. The divide between abstraction and realism within African American art was often characterized by debates over the presence of racial content in visual art and the role of the artist as political agent. These debates spurred the formation of groups like Spiral, a fourteen-member collective cofounded by Charles Alston, Hale Woodruff, Romare Bearden, and Norman Lewis in response to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.

As the gestural abstraction of the 1950s gave way to post-painterly abstraction, the emphasis on structure, formal composition and personal expressive language in painting was replaced by a focus on the environmental and psychological effects of color. Artists associated with color field painting brushed, poured, and stained raw canvas with a hazy effect, while others delineated sharp boundaries between fields of flat color in a style known as hard-edge painting. The Washington Color Painters represented these styles; its practicing members included Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and the African American artists Sam Gilliam and Alma Thomas. Thomas, the first graduate from the art department at Howard University, employed the active brushwork of gestural abstraction in mosaic-like, radiant fields of color inspired by nature. A lifelong teacher, she attained success late in life when in 1972, at age 81, she became the first African American woman to have a solo exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Gilliam, one of the most prominent African American abstract painters at the time, made large-scale stained paintings on unstretched canvas that hung like drapery, transforming the two-dimensional surface into a sculptural one. Hard-edge painters Alvin Loving (1935–2005) and William T. Williams (b 1942) were invested in geometry and minimal forms, inspired by early 20th-century nonobjective painting as modeled by Suprematism. Both artists were widely recognized and enjoyed commercial success. Loving’s paintings of geometric forms, often on shaped canvases, invoked Minimalism and Op art and reflected the influence of his training, which was shaped by the ideas of Hans Hofmann, Fernand Léger, and Josef Albers. Williams, in both painting and printmaking, made compositions consisting of overlapping and repeated diamond-shaped and trapezoidal forms delineated by thin white outlines. He likened their dynamic activation of the picture plane to the abstract syncopation of jazz music. Moving between painting and sculpture, Joe Overstreet painted exuberantly colored and geometrically shaped canvases in the 1970s that were tethered to architectural surfaces with grommets and rope. Unframed and portable, they drew on his African American and Native American heritage, with which he associates a nomadic upbringing.

Barbara Chase-Riboud: Confessions to Myself, bronze, painted black and black wool, 3.05 × 1.016 × 0.305 m, 1972 (University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Purchased with funds from the H.W. Anderson Charitable Foundation, 1972.105); image courtesy of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

Within the realm of abstract sculpture, African American artists explored new materials, forms, and innovative techniques, often in conversation with current political events and drawing from Western and non-Western sculptural traditions. One of the best-known African American abstract sculptors at the time was Richard Hunt from Chicago, who was the first African American sculptor to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1971. At age 13, he began sculpting, inspired by African metalwork and the open-form metal abstractions of Julio González and David Smith that he saw in Chicago museums; by the late 1950s he had achieved national recognition for his elegant anthropomorphic welded and cast metal sculpture, becoming the youngest artist to exhibit at the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962. Melvin Edwards also combined welded steel with assemblages of found metal objects, such as chains, knives, railroad spikes, and tools. Though abstract, the work directly referenced the politics of the Civil Rights Movement. Lynch Fragments, an ongoing series started in the 1960s, consists of 1 ft sq. metal reliefs whose materials, lines, and sharp protrusions convey a strong metaphorical violence and psychic tension. Barbara Chase-Riboud, based in Rome for the majority of her career, produced expressive bronze sculptures using direct wax casting process, often combined with a skirt of soft knotted cords (e.g. Monument III, bronze and silk, 2134 × 914 × 152 mm, 1970; New York, Betty Parsons Gal.).

Martin Puryear, Tom Lloyd (1929–1996), Daniel Johnson (b 1938), Juan Logan (b 1946), and Fred Eversley (b 1941) also worked in abstraction. Eversley trained as an electrical engineer, worked for NASA in the mid-1960s in California, and developed minimal, translucent polished resin sculptures. He affiliated with the California Light and Space movement, in which artists employed new fabrication methods and materials drawn from advancements in the aeronautics industry. Inspired by the properties of lenses to refract and refocus light energy, his works often took the form of disks meant both to be seen and seen through. Varying degrees of abstraction characterized the paintings of such artists as Bill Hutson (b 1936), Alvin Loving, Norma Morgan (1928–2017), and Robert Reid (1924–2000).

Bob Thompson: Descent from the Cross, oil on canvas, 2.13 × 1.52 m, 1963 (Washington, DC, Smithsonian American Art Museum); photo credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC/Art Resource, NY/image courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY

The innovative effects of color and space in abstraction also appeared in figurative expressionism by African American artists, as in the work of Bob Thompson, who reinterpreted Renaissance masterpieces in a modern language, using distorted, flat figures, colors influenced by Fauvism, and rich impasto painting techniques. Thompson was among a number of African American artists in the postwar period who critiqued Western culture by citing iconic symbols or works of Western art—and subverting their meaning by recontextualizing them in relation to African American culture. For example, the American flag was often represented in a distorted manner to reflect the divergent realities of the ideals that it long represented. Powerful art grew out of the political unrest of the 1960s, most specifically the struggle for civil rights and, by extension, the professional discrimination that African American artists faced. Many used their artwork to express outrage through unflinching representations of anti-Black violence and pride in their cultural heritage through symbols of Black Nationalism (especially the red, black, and green colors of the Pan-African flag) and other references to the visual culture of the African diaspora. The racial pride and political radicalism of this time inspired depictions of activists such as Angela Davis, Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali; as well as anti–Vietnam War slogans. Older artists, such as Romare Bearden, Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, Faith Ringgold, and John Biggers, also chose to critique American racial injustice in their work at this time.

The Black Arts Movement arose as in the late 1960s as the cultural arm of the Black Power movement, and prioritized art that was accessible to African American communities, such as posters and public murals. It was characterized by a multiplicity of styles, subjects, and techniques. The assassinations of civil rights leaders inspired agitprop art that deliberately confronted racial violence, especially in the work of Dana C. Chandler, Jr. (b 1941), who shot live ammunition through a door painted with the colors of the Pan-African flag in homage to Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, who was killed by FBI agents (Fred Hampton’s Door 2, 1975, acrylic paint on wood, 203.2 × 76.8 cm; Boston, MA, Mus. F.A.). The political and social role of the African American artist, as well as the definition of Black art, became major topics of concern at this time, often exacerbating divisions between African American artists devoted to abstraction versus those invested in figurative expression. The role of the Black artist, and of art as an agent of sociopolitical change, were central topics of the debate. Many artists felt an obligation to speak to the Black community through their work, which often stood in tension with those who believed in unrestricted expressive freedom of style and subject matter. One key motivation for these debates was the absence of artwork by African Americans in exhibitions about African American culture, such as the controversial exhibition Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900–1968 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1969. That exhibition and others prompted the formation of ad-hoc artist-led organizations that publicly agitated for change: the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC), whose members included Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, protested racial discrimination in collecting and exhibition practices at major museums, while the Harlem-based WEUSI Artist Collective, founded shortly after Spiral in 1964, developed its own spaces for Black culture under an Afrocentric philosophy. It ran an academy (1964–1978) and art gallery called Weusi-Nyumba Ya Sanaa (Swahili for “Black House of Art”) (1964–1974), and many of its members, in addition to incorporating aspects of African iconography in their artwork, abandoned their former “slave” names for African names. Weusi’s spokesman was Ademola Olugebefola (b 1941), who used traditional African materials such as cowrie shells to create ritualistic images. To combat the discrimination faced by many African American artists, who were routinely excluded from museums and galleries at this time, new institutions emerged that were devoted to experimental and avant-garde work by artists of color. While a number of African American history museums opened in the postwar years, the Studio Museum in Harlem opened its doors in 1968 as the first museum in the nation devoted to the work of artists of African descent, followed by the opening in 1969 of the National Center for Afro-American artists in Roxbury, MA. Kenkeleba House/Wilmer Jennings Gallery (founded by Joe Overstreet and Corrine Jennings in 1975) and Just Above Midtown Gallery (founded by Linda Goode Bryant in 1973) opened in New York, while Brockman Gallery (founded by brothers Alonzo Davis and Dale Brockman Davis in 1967) and Gallery 32 (founded by Suzanne Jackson in 1969) supported a burgeoning community of Black artists in Los Angeles.

In the 1960s the Chicago Mural Movement revived the WPA mural tradition, inviting artists to transform drab walls in run-down, predominantly Black neighborhoods with colorful murals that incorporated subject matter with which almost every African American could identify. These served to instill pride, hope, and a sense of heritage and racial identity in African American urban neighborhoods in light of nationwide urban renewal initiatives that threatened to destroy such communities under the guise of “slum clearance.” Chicago produced the largest number of murals. Groups in Detroit, Boston, San Francisco, Washington, DC, Atlanta, and New Orleans followed suit. The most famous were the Wall of Respect in Chicago (1967; see Rozelle, Wardlaw, and McKenna 1989–1991, p. 28) and the Wall of Dignity in Detroit, completed during the early 1960s. Both murals were lost when the buildings on which they were painted were demolished.

The Wall of Respect, which took as its general theme Black heroes, was executed by the Visual Arts Workshop of the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC). This included Barbara Jones-Hogu (1938–1978) and Jeff Donaldson (1932–2004). They were among a splinter group in Chicago that, after the mural was completed, formed the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AFRICOBRA), “bad” meaning “good” in African American slang. AFRICOBRA artists employed fluorescent colors in their highly rhythmic art, producing high-quality yet inexpensive screenprints (promoting the doctrine of “Black art for every Black home in America”) that regularly incorporated revolutionary messages and symbols of pan-African identity (e.g. Wadsworth Jarrell, Revolutionary (Angela Davis), 1971, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 162.6 × 192.5 cm; New York, Brooklyn Mus.).

Following such reforms as the Public Accommodations Act of 1964, which made racial discrimination in public places illegal, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which enforced African Americans’ right to vote, expressions of militancy in art gave way to celebrations of the cultures of the African diaspora; many artists referenced West African and Egyptian themes, often in combination with direct critiques of Western culture. Often discarding the conventions of Western artistic methods, composition, and art historical narrative, African American artists at this time explored a range of innovative methods and media to create new modes of expression and material languages. BECC co-founder Benny Andrews combined pieces of clothing with painting to create collage paintings with dynamic surface texture, often merging Pop art iconography with figures drawn from the artist’s social circles. In the early 1960s, Romare Bearden turned away from his flat, abstract painting style to create highly original and improvisational photocollages that juxtaposed photographs and found imagery whose dynamic composition captured the rhythms of jazz and the pace of urban life. In 1964 Bearden photographed the collages and printed them in black and white at monumental scale in a series entitled Projections, which was exhibited to great acclaim.

Assemblage, defined as the method of combining textured material, discarded objects, and found objects not conventionally associated with art into a discrete artwork, emerged with particular intensity on the West Coast, especially among African American artists like Betye Saar and Noah Purifoy (1917–2004). In the late 1960s, Saar began creating assemblages in found boxes and window frames whose content ranged from critiques of racism and sexism to celebrations of mysticism and astrology. Her 1972 work, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, which takes as its subject the Black mammy racial stereotype, combines flea market finds with appropriated advertising imagery and Black Power symbolism to create a loaded, militant Black feminist critique. In the wake of the 1965 Watts Uprisings, large areas of the historically African American neighborhood were looted and burned, and Purifoy—who had recently cofounded the Watts Towers Community Arts Center—scavenged twisted, melted remains from the rubble to create uncanny assemblages that directly referenced an immediate context of racial violence.

African American artists also experimented with performance art and intermedia practices in the 1960s and 1970s. Benjamin Patterson (1934–2016), a composer affiliated with Fluxus, created participatory scores inspired by the performances of John Cage and John Tudor in the 1960s. Terry Adkins (1953–2014) pursued a research-based and conceptual practice, investigating individual subjects from African and African American history in eclectic, interdisciplinary projects encompassing live music, video, spoken-word poetry, sculpture, and architectural interventions. In Los Angeles, a group of avant-garde artists committed to experimentation, improvisational performance, and conceptual practice formed the ad-hoc collective Studio Z, whose members included Senga Nengudi, David Hammons, Suzanne Jackson (b 1944), John Outterbridge (1933–2020), Houston Conwill (1947–2016), Maren Hassinger, and Barbara McCullough (b 1945). Together, the group staged ephemeral installations throughout Los Angeles and exhibited together. In the early 1970s, Hammons created “body prints” using his own skin as a graphic medium in works that directly critiqued racial injustice, as well as assemblages and street interventions that employed discarded materials, such as barbecue bones, hair trimmings, and empty wine bottles, as talismanic indices of everyday Black life. Nengudi and Hassinger, both trained in dance, often collaborated to activate one another’s sculptural installations, which employed commercial and industrial fibers. Nengudi created web-like installations of stretched, knotted, and weighted nylon pantyhose in a postminimal vernacular that was deeply engaged with the body. Hassinger, invested in environment and landscape, created fields of twisted and frayed metal rope in interior and exterior spaces.

The rise of second-wave feminism in the United States during this period powerfully shaped the practices and politics of women artists (see Feminism and art). However, many African American women felt excluded by its predominantly white, middle-class leadership and also felt their concerns for gender discrimination dismissed within the patriarchal organization of the Black Arts Movement. Black women artists created their own supportive groups, such as Women, Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation (WSABAL), founded by Faith Ringgold, and the cooperative Where We At (WWA), led by Kay Brown (1932–2012), which organized its own exhibitions. Brown was one of only two women who belonged to the WEUSI art collective, and at this time shifted the subject matter of her work—the protagonists of Black liberation—from male to female (e.g. Sister Alone in a Rented Room, 1974). Ringgold, who had been excluded from membership in Spiral, created flat paintings with geometric designs, whose compressed and distorted renderings of figures were infused with racial and gender motifs. In 1972 she began a Feminist series inspired by Tibetan tangka textiles; this, along with the history of African American quilting, inspired her decision to frame her paintings in quilted material (see Femmage). Other African American artists who embraced feminist ideals include Betye Saar and her daughter, Alison Saar; Howardena Pindell, founding member of A.I.R. Gallery (Arists in Residence), the first all-women’s art gallery; and the performance artist Lorraine O’Grady (b 1934).

Coincident with feminism and the Black Arts Movement was the rise of conceptual art, a constellation of philosophically oriented art practices that questioned the relationship between art, idea, and object, often critically interrogating the systems in which the work of art constructed meaning, from linguistics to institutions. The tautological investigations of Joseph Kosuth, the rule-based practice of Sol LeWitt, and a general interest in information established conceptual art in the 1960s as critical of modernism’s focus on art objects and committed instead to the intellectual processes involved in art-making. Artists such as Adrian Piper and Charles Gaines (b 1944) (both close with LeWitt), as well as Howardena Pindell and Renée Green, extended these questions to interrogate systems of discrimination and racism, establishing powerful models for a later generation of artists, many born after the Civil Rights Movement and who came of age at the turn of the 21st century. Piper, a philosopher, deployed conceptual strategies in performance, installation, writing, and archival creation to address white fears of miscegenation and xenophobia (e.g. Mythic Being, 1972–1976). Pindell’s abstract paintings and mixed media works from the 1960s and 1970s pressed the grid, a modernist construct, into the service of numbers, texture, color, scent, glitter, and collaged material; in the 1980s her work shifted toward the autobiographical, starting with her video Free, White, and 21 (1980), a performative and satirical testimonial of racial and gender discrimination in which the artist plays both herself and her white antagonist. Gaines’s conceptual work was more systems-driven; shaped by the composer John Cage’s writings on indeterminacy, he plotted gridded systems of numerals and layered drawings that, though propagated using a predetermined operation, created unexpected forms.

As a result of direct activism for greater recognition of African American contemporary art practices, the 1970s witnessed several major museum exhibitions of African American artists. Among them, the juried exhibition Blacks: US: 1973 at the New York Cultural Center presented forty-two acclaimed African American artists, while in 1968 the Brooklyn Museum hosted a major survey exhibition, Contemporary Afro-American Arts, in its Community Art Gallery, a new space established in direct response to a campaign by local artists who advocated for greater community representation within the institution. Henri Ghent, its curator and founding director, was a co-founder of the BECC, and his career was devoted to organizing major exhibitions of African American art in the US and abroad. Another major exhibition mounted in response to institutional protests was Contemporary Black Artists in America, organized in 1971 by Robert Doty at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. It prioritized abstraction overall, recognizing the demand made by many African American artists for their work to be evaluated on greater aesthetic terms rather than the identity-based confines determined by current debates about representation.

Sam Gilliam: In Celebration, screenprint on paper, 775 × 972 mm, 1987 (Washington, DC, Smithsonian American Art Museum); photo credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC/Art Resource, NY

Such artists as Sam Gilliam and Richard Hunt continued to explore abstract art, both completing a number of large-scale public commissions. Gilliam’s paintings of the 1980s and early 1990s frequently employed metal, fabric, and paint in dramatic impasto techniques, as well as using more conventional techniques such as acrylic and screenprinting (e.g. In Celebration, 1987). Martin Puryear emerged during the 1980s as a leading African American abstract sculptor, and represented the United States in the 2019 Venice Biennale. Working primarily in a postminimalist style, Puryear created biomorphic, organic monoliths out of wood accented with rope, leather, and hide. His methods and aesthetic references elevate the craftsmanship of African sculpture and basket-weaving, woodworking, and boatmaking, informed by his international training with indigenous West African craftsmen, Scandinavian master woodworkers, and his graduate work at Yale University with Robert Morris and Richard Serra.

In the 1980s a number of pioneering exhibitions recognized the cultural contributions of African Americans to American folk art traditions. In 1982 the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, mounted Black Folk Art in America: 1930–1980, the first major traveling exhibition of African American self-taught artists. The artists, the majority of whom were born and still lived in the southern states of the USA, were frequently elderly when their careers began, following retirement or a work-related injury. Many were self-styled religious ministers, prophets, and missionaries. Their work often referenced childhood experiences, utilized bird, animal, and reptilian imagery, and represented figures associated with emancipation and civil rights, such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. Such artists displayed an amazing ingenuity for converting found objects and discarded materials, including costume jewelry, bones, bottle caps, chewing gum, foam packing, sawdust, mud, tree trunks, branches, and Mardi Gras beads, into unique artifacts. The influence of African art and cultures on African American art was explored in an exhibition organized in 1989 by the Dallas Museum of Art. Black Art—Ancestral Legacy: The African Impulse in African American Art was the first major exhibition to bring together the works of African, Caribbean, and African American academic and folk artists. Robert Farris Thompson’s groundbreaking book, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (1983), illuminated the influence of the artistic contributions of five African civilizations across the African diaspora and was widely read among artists at the time.

The 1980s were also a time when elements of African American popular culture, particularly hip-hop, played a vital and increasingly more visible role in mainstream art production. An important figure in the 1980s was Jean-Michel Basquiat, a young artist, who in his early career brought together an uptown New York graffiti aesthetic (before becoming a painter, the artist tagged walls with graffiti artist Al Diaz under the pseudonym “Samo”) with a downtown club scene consisting of both music and visual art. Not often closely associated with the work of contemporaneous African American artists, Basquiat nevertheless paved the way for the introduction of hip-hop culture into mainstream galleries and museums. The artist’s controversial relationship and collaborations with Andy Warhol also informed his painting as he combined a critique of popular and consumer culture with explorations of race and racism.

At the end of the 20th century, artists consolidated methods of institutional critique and conceptualism with the concerns of Black radical politics, creating artworks that were deeply critical of histories of racial violence yet informed by different theoretical perspectives than earlier generations, such as postmodernism and poststructuralism. Some critiqued the museum space itself, as in Fred Wilson’s famous Mining the Museum exhibition (1992) at the Maryland Historical Society, or William Pope.L’s occupation of the gallery space in Eating the Wall Street Journal, staged at The Sculpture Center in New York (2000). Artists also analyzed the relationship between text and the visual representation of African American bodies. For instance, Carrie Mae Weems explored personal narrative, as well as issues of African American womanhood and domesticity, in her Kitchen Table Series (1990). Likewise, Lorna Simpson investigated issues of surveillance, voyeurism, and racial classification in works such as Guarded Conditions (1989). Lastly, Glenn Ligon addressed the impact of African American literature and performance in stenciled text paintings, in which he repeated phrases from figures ranging from James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston to Richard Pryor. The conceptual strategies employed by these artists—interrogating the structure of language, appropriating content from visual culture and other realms, and recontextualizing ideas to critique institutions of power and privilege, reflect the Black conceptual practices begun in the 1970s and 1980s by artists such as David Hammons, Senga Nengudi, Howardena Pindell, and Adrian Piper. Many artists, including Ligon, Weems, and Simpson, as well as the painter Michael Ray Charles, engaged the legacy of slavery during this period. Kara Walker, for example, made large-scale tableaux of cut paper silhouettes, evoking grotesque scenes of antebellum plantation life with exquisitely wrought black paper. The pursuit of blackness as form and concept informed the large-scale paintings of Kerry James Marshall, whose mentorship by Charles White is reflected in his celebratory depictions of joyful, graceful, and powerful African American figures. Marshall studied the composition and techniques of grand manner painting to shape his rendering the figures in a range of deep black hues, and their placement in recognizable sites, such as the infamous housing projects of Chicago’s south side.

Though all of the above-listed artists addressed issues of race in their work, they did so in ways that were more disparate and sometimes less conspicuously political than their counterparts working in the 1960s and 1970s. This change has prompted a discussion of the artists as being “post-black,” a term popularized by Thelma Golden (b 1965), director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, in the exhibition catalog of the show Freestyle (2001). The term, because of its seeming reference to postracialism, has raised some ire among critics. Nevertheless, it also helpfully identifies a generation of artists committed to redefining and challenging race through its intersections with other identities such class, gender, and region.

Bibliography

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II. Abstract sculpture.

  • dele Jegede, bibliography contributed by Kelvin L. Parnell

The roots of American abstract sculpture can be traced to extant pieces—functional, decorative, and utilitarian objects—which were crafted in socially challenging circumstances by slaves in northern and middle colonies in the 19th century. The most referenced example of these utilitarian objects is the vessel (h. 210 mm) dubbed the Afro-Carolinian Face Vessel (Washington, DC, N.G.A.). The way in which it meshes abstracted physiognomic features with functionality recalls the spiritual force and deliberative improvisation that are essential features of African sculpture.

This adaptive essence is a characteristic of abstraction in African American art and has manifested itself in several forms. Among artists who took recourse to abstract expressive three-dimensional works are Bessie Harvey, Betye Saar, and her daughter Alison Saar. One peculiar trait of these artists is their preference for recycling materials. All of them produced intimate sculptures that are steeped in spirituality. While the two Saars received formal education in art, Harvey was a self-taught artist who, like Thornton Dial, worked in formats such as metal reliefs and freestanding assemblages. Dial gave full rein to the rawness of the very process through which his sculptures are produced. With a fourth-grade education, his abstract sculptures and installations are considered unique for two main reasons: the artist’s immersion in the culture of the Deep South and the absence of any exposure to formal art training or, for that matter, art establishments. It was not until the 1980s that he first learned of the existence of museums. What Dial lacked in formal education he gained in lifelong hands-on training in Bessemer, AL, near Birmingham, where he lived for more than thirty years. It was here that he learned a variety of skills—welding, ironwork, carpentry, and cement work—all of which gave him the skills necessary to produce remarkable sculptures.

A pervasive issue in African American abstract sculpture throughout the 19th century and much of the 20th pertained to sustainability and institutional patronage. While African American painters were relatively visible, abstract sculptors did not fare well: the prevailing political and socioeconomic climate severely discouraged the creation of any sculptural pieces that were not utilitarian or were dictated by aesthetic impulses or personal whims. Patronage of three-dimensional art created by African American artists was almost nonexistent. This was the prevailing situation up to and, indeed, beyond the Harlem Renaissance.

In the ensuing years after the crash of the stock market in 1929, the Federal Art Project, which was part of the Works Progress Administration that President Franklin D. Roosevelt established, produced no remarkable abstract sculptures by African American artists. The convulsive political environment of the first five decades of the 20th century, during which Blacks were discriminated against and denied equal opportunities across a broad spectrum of the social and political strata, gave impetus to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. For African American visual artists, this condition provoked a visual militancy: a desire to identify with an expressive stance that was afrocentric. Bright colors, highly energized designs and patterns derived from African motifs, and symbols that were radically different from the accepted Western canon were incorporated into the visual lexicon of African American art. Known as Black Expressionism, this movement was limited to the two-dimensional domain; it would be several years before African American abstract sculpture would come into its own.

Among the artists who have defined this category is Richard Hunt. His sinuous, organic bronze or welded metal sculptures are characteristic stylistic traits of an artist who grew up with interest in the visual arts and the biological sciences. He started making sculpture in clay in his father’s basement, which he converted into a personal studio when he was just a teenager. When he was in high school, he worked at the zoological laboratory of the University of Chicago and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. He became fascinated by sculpture, especially the processes entailed in working with welded steel and iron, which he particularly admired in the work of the Spanish artist Julio González. Hunt’s abstract sculpture is a synthesis of geometric and organic elements combined to create movement and empathy in space. In creating sinuous, biotic forms, he drew inspiration from his familiarization with biology and his understanding of the processes entailed in working with metals. His stainless steel Freeform (1993), which adorns the State of Illinois Building at North LaSalle Street, Chicago, exemplifies Hunt’s style.

Among women whose sculptures have had considerable impact for their skillful handling of materials and their cerebral approach to subject matter are Elizabeth Catlett and Barbara Chase-Riboud. While Catlett expressed herself in figurative and abstract styles, her sensitive portrayal of the African American condition, especially in wood, has endeared her to diverse audiences across nations. As a sculptor, Chase-Riboud used abstraction to express nuanced and interconnected artistry at the spiritual, creative, and literary levels. She traveled widely and earned perhaps more recognition in Europe—and in particular in France where she resided from 1961—than in the United States. Her Tantra series, of which Tantra I (1994) is an example, is devoted to exploring the interconnectedness of the spiritual, the poetic, and the sexual, using an assortment of media such as bronze, fiber, and silk.

One of the most versatile African American sculptors who worked in the abstract medium is Martin Puryear. Acknowledged for his disciplined and poetic works, which are shorn of any doctrinal or racial undertones, Puryear capitalized on his dexterity and craftsmanship. His interest in art was matched only by his love for reading and an irrepressible urge to construct things. He developed an interest in abstract art during his years at Catholic University in Washington, DC, when he came under the influence of Nell Sonneman. Between 1964 and 1966 Puryear was in Sierra Leone, and then traveled to Stockholm. His apprenticeship to local craftsmen in these two diverse environments gave him the skills that informed his graduate studies in sculpture at Yale. He produced a body of work in which the distillation of oppositional or complementary ideas remains a constant theme. Puryear is recognized for his uncanny ability to bend his material, mainly wood, to obey his creative biddings. Among the works that attest to Puryear’s sensitivity to medium is Ladder for Booker T. Washington (1996), an 11 m (36.9 ft) tall ash ladder that meanders its way up until it almost dissolves into the atmosphere.

In terms of the socio-political import of their abstract sculptures, Melvin Edwards appears to operate from the opposite end of Puryear’s spectrum. While Puryear deliberately avoided artworks with political tenor, Edwards was direct in using his sculptures to draw attention to the dark history of race in the United States and the extent to which African Americans have been demonized, humiliated, and dehumanized. His Lynch Fragments series, which he began in 1963 and which now numbers over 200 pieces, is meant to draw attention to the victimization of Blacks, many of whom were lynched and hanged. Created often in relief form and meant to be hung as in Tambo (1993; Washington, DC, Smithsonian Amer. A. Mus.), Edwards used composite found objects such as metal extrusions, nails, auto parts, horseshoes, ball bearings, and chains to underline the poignancy of his message.

Bibliography

  • Rozelle, R. V., ed. Black Art Ancestral Legacy: The African Impulse in African American Art. Dallas, TX, Mus. A., 1989. Exhibition catalog.
  • Powell, R. J. Rhapsodies in Black: The Art of the Harlem Renaissance. Berkeley, 1997.
  • Patton, S. F. African-American Art. New York, 1998.
  • Lewis, S. African American Art and Artists. Berkeley, 3/2003.
  • Calo, M. A. Distinction and Denial: Race, Nation, and the Critical Construction of the African American Artist, 1920–40. Ann Arbor, 2007.
  • Elderfield, John. Martin Puryear. New York, MOMA, 2007–2008. Exhibition catalog.
  • Powell, Richard J. and others. African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond. Washington, DC, Smithsonian Amer. A. Mus., 2012. Exhibition catalog.
  • Farrington, Lisa E. African-American Art: A Visual and Cultural History. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
  • Godfrey, Mark and Whitley, Zoé, eds. Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. London: Tate Publishing, 2017.

III. Murals.

  • Bridget R. Cooks, revised by Jessica M. Ditillio

Mural painting has played a unique and prominent role in the work of African American artists and within Black urban communities across the nation. The earliest known murals painted by an African American artist are the Belmont Murals painted by Robert S. Duncanson. Commissioned in 1850 by Cincinnati abolitionist and banker Nicholas Longworth, these eight murals depict landscapes set in trompe l’oeil frames directly on the walls of his private residence. Although African American artists have been painting murals since the mid-19th century, two major periods in the 20th century mark the flourishing of mural production within African American culture: the 1930s through to the 1940s, and the late 1960s through to the 1970s.

1. 1930s–1950.

In the 1930s many murals were funded by the Federal Art Project (FAP) within the Works Progress Administration (WPA) (1935–1943). Murals were critical to the program’s focus on creating accessible public art. The WPA murals were sponsored to boost national morale and create jobs during the Great Depression as well as to encourage patriotism during World War II. These large-scale paintings were made to inspire viewers to labor for the nation, strengthen the country during difficult economic times, and celebrate America’s national heritage. African American muralists were influenced by the exploration of their African legacy during the Harlem Renaissance (1919–1929), as well as the aesthetic and formal expressions of cultural heritage by three master muralists from Mexico known as Los Tres Grandes—José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. African American murals in this period explored African diasporic origins, current political concerns, and future contributions to the nation. Their works were displayed in a variety of buildings including hospitals, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and libraries. Some of the African American muralists who excelled during this period include Charles Alston, John Biggers, Aaron Douglas, Charles White, and Hale Woodruff.

Aaron Douglas: Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery through Reconstruction, oil on canvas, 1524 × 3530 mm, 1934 (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library); photo credit: Schomburg Center, NYPL/Art Resource, NY

Aaron Douglas is best known for his murals Pageant of the Negro (1930), painted for the Cravath Library at Fisk University, in Nashville, TN, and the four part series Aspects of Negro Life (1934), located in the main reading room at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York (see fig.). Douglas’s Fisk murals imagine life in Africa before the transatlantic slave trade and life in America during and after slavery. The murals are organized into two themes: spirituals and labor. Through the abstraction of Cubist, West and Central African, and Art Deco styles, Aspects of Negro Life focuses on African American music, song, and dance in Africa, forced migration of Africans to the New World, life during slavery, and emancipation from slavery.

In 1936, Harlem Hospital commissioned a monumental series of murals to be produced under the direction of Charles Alston. Alston submitted designs by himself and six other artists, including Georgette Seabrooke (1916–2011), Vertis Hayes (1911–2000), Sara Murrell (fl. 1930s), Elba Lightfoot (1910–1989), and Selma Day (fl. 1933–1951), and Sicilian fresco painter Alfred Crimi (1900–1994). The social realist murals explored African folklore, traditional African medicine, modern medicine, community recreation activities, and African American progress. While the original sketches were approved by the FAP, hospital superintendent L. T. Dermody rejected four of the murals as he felt “the murals had too much Negro matter…. And that the hospital was not a Negro hospital but a city institution” (NY Times, Feb 22, 1936, 13). In response, the Harlem Artists Guild, then chaired by Aaron Douglas, launched an interracial protest of the hospital’s decision, successfully pressuring the institution to move forward with the project. After many years of neglect, in 2012 the Harlem Hospital murals were restored as part of a public building project. They became a central feature of Harlem Hospital’s renovated patient pavilion.

Hale Woodruff traveled to Mexico to work with Diego Rivera in 1934. He was the only African American artist to collaborate with one of Los Tres Grandes. He incorporated some of the stylistic aspects of the great Mexican muralists into his three 1939 murals titled collectively The Amistad Mutiny, painted for the Savery Library at the Talladega College in Alabama. The panels depict the rebellion of slaves on the Spanish schooner Amistad, their trial in the quest for freedom, and their return to Sierra Leone. The inspirational story of resistance to slavery was monumentalized as an important part of African American heritage and was intended to educate and encourage contemporary viewers to fight against current forms of racial oppression. In 1949 Alston, together with Woodruff, painted two large murals for the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company in Los Angeles, CA. The murals focus on the history of Black settlers in the West with a particular attention to their roles in the founding of Los Angeles.

2. 1960s–1970s.

During the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s to 1970s, murals were popular in working-class and middle-class Black neighborhoods across the country. These grassroots collaborative projects, which were aimed at claiming space, depict ideas of shared Black cultural heritage, articulate political aspirations, and express spiritual beliefs. Murals were created to renew hope in communities where unemployment was often high and residents were disenfranchised from political representation and power. The mural that exemplified and sparked the movement was the ambitious Chicago-based project known as the Wall of Respect (1967), spearheaded by painter Jeff Donaldson (1932–2004) and co-produced with fellow artists William Walker (1927–2011) and Wadsworth Jarrell (b 1929). Donaldson was co-founder of the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), an Afrocentric group formed to engage Black American communities with the visual arts. Painted on the side of a two-story building, the mural celebrated Black iconic figures in four thematic sections: rhythm and blues, theater, and jazz; religion; statesmen; and political heroes. Photographs taken by Black photographers of subjects reflecting these themes were interspersed between the two floors. Over a four-year period, the images and themes were modified as community attitudes shifted.

Although the wall was destroyed in a 1971 fire, it inspired other Wall of Respect murals in St. Louis (1968) and Atlanta (1974). Detroit’s Wall of Dignity (1968), Chicago’s Wall of Truth (1969), Philadelphia’s Wall of Consciousness (1972), as well as Chicago’s Wall of Understanding (1970) and Wall of Community Respect (1985) are among other riffs on the original theme. Over 200 murals were painted in Chicago alone by 1975. Over 1,500 were painted in urban Black communities after 1967. Some of these murals adorned churches, alleyways, and other community spaces as visual celebrations of jazz, religion, local histories, hometown heroes, and critical commentaries on issues of national concern.

Also in the 1970s, female muralists such as Vanita Green and Justine Preshé deVan, based in Chicago, painted murals celebrating Black womanhood and protesting the exclusion of Black women artists. Preshé deVan’s 1977 Black Woman Emerging was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which allowed the artist to invite local women of all ages to participate in the mural’s creation.

3. 1980 and after.

In the 1980s and 1990s many murals by African American artists were influenced by the development of hip-hop, graffiti, and other forms of street art, while drawing on the earlier generations of African American muralists including Alston, Douglas, Biggers, White, and Woodruff. Their bold style and impressive size combined with their content made a grand impact. Works by Los Angeles–based artist Richard Wyatt (b 1955) exemplify this new wave of murals, for example Hollywood Jazz 1945–1972 (1990), executed at the Capitol Records building in Hollywood, CA. This mural depicts larger-than-life photorealist portraits of jazz legends. In his mural Cecil (1989), located at the Watts Towers Art Center in Los Angeles, Wyatt immortalized Los Angeles art-world icon Cecil Ferguson.

Throughout the 1990s, Black urban communities used murals to portray local and national figures, to work towards social justice, and to celebrate themselves. The success of murals in Black urban communities was capitalized upon by corporate brands such as Coca-Cola and Sprite in the 1990s and 2000s, as well as Netflix in the 2020s. Each commissioned murals that function as billboards. Despite their commodification, African American people continue to paint murals to validate their commonalities and as a way to express their identities to a larger public that often dismisses their contributions. Since 2013 many murals have emerged in response to the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement. Some consist of simple text. Others, such as a 7,000 sq. ft mural memorializing Breonna Taylor in Annapolis, MD, produced by the nonprofit organization Future History Now, include stylized portraits and figurative images memorializing those slain through police violence.

Bibliography

  • Ketner, J. D. The Emergence of the African-American Artist: Robert S. Duncanson, 1821–1872. Columbia, MO, 1994.
  • Lefalle-Collins, L. In the Spirit of Resistance: African American Modernists and the Mexican Muralist School. New York, 1996.
  • Donaldson, J. “The Rise, Fall and Legacy of the Wall of Respect Movement.” International Review of African American Art 15, no. 1 (1998): 22–26.
  • Patton, S. African-American Art. Oxford, 1998.
  • Prigoff, J. and Dunitz, R. J. Walls of Heritage, Walls of Pride: African American Murals. San Francisco, 2000.
  • Linden, Diana L. and Greene, Larry A. “Charles Alston’s Harlem Hospital Murals: Cultural Politics in Depression Era Harlem.” Prospects 26 (Oct 2001): 391–421.
  • Earle, S., ed. Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist. New Haven, 2007.
  • Palmer-Smith, Glenn. Murals of New York City: The Best of New York’s Public Paintings from Bemelmans to Parrish. New York: Rizzoli, 2013.
  • Farrington, Lisa E. “Social Realist Murals” and “Black Feminist Murals.” In African-American Art: A Visual and Cultural History. New York, 2016.
  • Alkalimat, Abdul, Zorach, Rebecca, and Crawford, Romi. The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicago. Evanston, IL, 2017.
  • Oehler, Sarah Kelly. “Charles White’s Murals and History as Art.” In Charles White: A Retrospective. Chicago, IL, A. Inst. and New York, MOMA, 2018–19. Exhibition catalog.
  • Huebner, Jeff. Walls of Prophecy & Protest: William Walker & the Roots of a Revolutionary Public Art Movement. Evanston, IL, 2019.

IV. Photography in the 19th century.

  • Camara Dia Holloway, bibliography contributed by Meaghan Walsh

American-born free persons of African descent have been photographers since the medium’s inception. In antebellum America, photography was a viable business opportunity for free men of color and a handful were among the early adopters of the new technology. Despite the successes of this small number of practitioners during the course of the 19th century, the dominant culture quickly and effectively wedded photography to the demands of racial ideology in virtually all of the medium’s applications. The standard practices that were established for photography privileged the white subject, normalizing the concept of the biologically based inherent racial difference and the inferiority of African Americans and all other non-whites. It was not until the turn of the century that African American photographers developed a distinctive aesthetic as a conscious strategy to counter the pejorative imagery that pervaded American culture.

1. Antebellum era.

One of the first people to bring the new daguerreotype technology to the USA was Jules Lion (1810–1866), a French artist of African descent. Lion had moved to New Orleans in 1837 but was back in Paris when Daguerre made his discovery public and obtained instruction in the new medium. When he returned to New Orleans in 1840, he was the first to introduce photography to that region. None of his daguerreotypes is known to have survived.

Two other important African American daguerreotypists were Augustus Washington (1820/1821–1875) and J. P. Ball (1825–1904). Washington, a free man from Trenton, NJ, trying to finance his education at Dartmouth College, opened a studio in Hartford, CT, in 1846. Circumstances prevented him from completing his education but his studio was a success. Still, pessimistic about prospects for free persons of color in America, Washington migrated to Liberia in 1853 and operated a studio in Monrovia, the capital. Washington made a series of portraits of fellow colonists who were members of the Liberian government, providing a rare visual record of American-born African Americans who repatriated to Africa. Ball’s Great Daguerrean Gallery of the West in Cincinnati, OH, became one of the nation’s largest photographic enterprises. Both Hartford and Cincinnati were abolitionist centers with a Euro-American population predisposed to support African American businesses. During the 19th century, African American photographers depended upon a largely Euro-American clientele. Prior to the Civil War, few free African Americans could afford to have their photographs taken and few such portraits have survived.

Enslaved Africans sometimes appeared in group portraits of a slaveholding household, and nannies were often included in portraits of young children, holding and displaying the child for the camera. The enslaved Africans appeared on the periphery in such images reinforcing the nation’s racial hierarchies while simultaneously suggesting the purported intimacy between the races routinely expressed by slaveholders. In 1850 Swiss-born scientist and Harvard University professor Louis Agassiz (1807–1873) pioneered the use of photography in support of scientific racism despite his insistence on his political neutrality regarding the slavery debate. Hoping to scientifically prove polygenesis (i.e. that Africans constituted a separate species), Agassiz commissioned James T. Zealy, a daguerreotypist in Columbia, SC, to make a series of images of African-born slaves and their American-born children selected from local plantations. Not readily reproducible, the daguerreotypes did not circulate widely but set an important precedent for the coupling of photography and science in the service of racial hegemony. Rediscovered in the storage attic of Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in 1976, these images have become notorious examples of how photography had been used to denote racial difference.

2. Civil War.

Just prior to the Civil War, less expensive alternatives to the daguerreotype, such as the ambrotype, ferrotype, and tintype, became available as well as a commercially viable negative/positive process that yielded reproducible paper-based prints. The invention of the carte-de-visite in France in 1859 helped to popularize the paper-mounted prints. Such photographers as J. P. Ball embraced the new technologies and he remained in business until his death at the end of the century.

The ability to mass-reproduce photographic images also established a market of portraits of cultural heroes and celebrities. Former slaves who effected dramatic escapes from bondage and wrote autobiographies in support of the abolitionist cause were popular photographic subjects. Figures such as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth were photographed numerous times. They recognized that the expressive power of the visual image, and especially the photograph, could be an important tool in their arsenal of weapons to abolish slavery. Truth also had an economic incentive and sold signed copies of her photographs as she toured on the lecture circuit to support herself.

The advent of several wars, including the Crimean War in Europe and the Civil War, made cheap, easily mailed photographs desirable. Soldiers constituted a large market for photographers at mid-century, commissioning portraits of themselves to send to their loved ones. African American soldiers constituted a portion of this market. Having a record of themselves in uniform and able to lay claim to all the established hallmarks of manhood was an additional incentive. White officers sometimes had their African American pageboys included in their portraits, which would have been a sign of elevated status and/or commitment to slavery. Contrabands, or escaped slaves who joined the Union Army, appeared regularly in camp images. A particularly famous pair of images of the former slave Gordon, one showing the keloid scar tissue from whippings on his back and one of him in uniform, circulated widely as Union propaganda. Images of a liberated plantation’s entire complement of slaves were also taken during this period.

3. From Reconstruction to Jim Crow.

Following the Civil War, African Americans were able to commission portraits in greater numbers, though they were still largely limited financially to only obtaining such images on one or two major life occasions such as a marriage. Photographic portraiture increasingly became a means to articulate a distinctive African American identity, but one that adhered closely to Victorian bourgeois norms. The self-presentation of the sitter was the determining factor in reflecting an African American identity, not the racial background of the photographer. Although African American photographers increased in number during this period, they were not necessarily accessible to every African American patron. Few photographers of the period had the financial wherewithal to observe discriminatory practices—photographers of all racial backgrounds had clients of all races.

Scholarship on individual African American photographers of this period is sparse. Archival collections for several photographers have been identified, such as the Goodridge Brothers—Glenalvin (1829–1890), Wallace (1840–1922), and William (1846–1890)—active in Saginaw, MI; Harry Shepard (b 1856) active in St. Paul, MN; Thomas E. Askew (?1850–1914), active in Atlanta, GA; and Daniel Freeman (1868–after ?1919), active in Washington, DC. Preliminary research on these figures has been conducted but much more remains to be done.

As segregation laws became entrenched in the 1890s, the photography market also polarized and both African Americans photographers and clients found their options restricted by race. By this time not only could most African Americans afford at least one photographic portrait during their lifetime, but a prosperous African American elite had also emerged who would begin to accumulate a series of portraits of a single individual over the course of their lifespan. Despite racial barriers, African American photographers had a self-sustaining client pool eager for their services. This promoted the emergence of a distinctive African American aesthetic as photographers and sitters collaborated to produce imagery that reflected their group’s tastes, values, and aspirations.

Bibliography

  • Willis, Deborah. Black Photographers, 1840–1940: An Illustrated Bio-Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1985.
  • Willis, D. Black Photographers, 1940–1988: An Illustrated Bio-Bibliography. New York, 1988.
  • Willis, Deborah. Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.
  • Wilson, Jackie Napoleon. Hidden Witness: African-American Images from the Dawn of Photography to the Civil War. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
  • Millstein, B., ed. Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers. New York, Brooklyn Mus., 2001. Exhibition catalog.
  • Willis, Deborah and Lewis, David Levering. A Small Nation of People: W. E. B. Du Bois and African American Portraits of Progress. New York: Amistad, 2003.
  • Smith, Shawn Michelle. Photography on the Color Line: W. E. B. Du Bois, Race, and Visual Culture. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004.
  • Kelbaugh, R. Introduction to African American Photographs: 1840–1950: Identification, Research, Care and Collecting. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 2005.
  • Wallis, Bruce and Willis, Deborah. African American Vernacular Photography: Selected From the Daniel Cowin Collection. New York: International Center of Photography, 2005.
  • Willis, Deborah. Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present. New York: Norton, 2009.
  • Wallace, Maurice O. and Smith, Shawn Michelle, eds. Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012.
  • Willis, Deborah and Krauthamer, Barbara. Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013.

V. Photography in the 20th century.

  • Camara Dia Holloway, bibliography contributed by Meaghan Walsh

The Paris Exposition of 1900 became the catalyst for a significant development in the history of African American photography. W. E. B. Du Bois and Thomas J. Calloway, his former roommate at Fisk University in Nashville, TN, were commissioned to create an exhibition about the “American Negro” for the Palace of Social Economy at the Fair. Several of the historically Black colleges and universities that were founded following the Civil War were invited to contribute photographs for inclusion in the display.

Photography was viewed as a practical skill with earning potential unlike that of more traditional fine art media and therefore an acceptable part of the curriculum at such institutions. For example, Leigh Richmond Miner (1864–1935), a Euro-American photographer from Connecticut hired to initiate photographic instruction at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Hampton, VA, founded a camera club at the school in 1893 with a combined membership of Euro-American instructors and African American students. Some of those students went on to become professional photographers and later teach at these schools as their faculties were integrated. In 1899 the Hampton Institute Camera Club began a series of photographic illustrations for the first of six books of poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar.

The famed Euro-American photojournalist Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864–1952) was also at Hampton in 1899, having been invited to take a series of images intended for the “American Negro” exhibit. This album was singled out for a special prize in addition to the prize awarded to the entire exhibit. Du Bois was responsible for the organization of several albums of photographs and the vision of African American life he presented was ideologically distinct from Johnston’s. Her images were consistent with the gradual and limited assimilation of African Americans into the broader American culture espoused by the educator Booker T. Washington, a graduate of Hampton and founder of the Tuskegee Institute. Du Bois, in contrast, favored unequivocal equality and no restriction to the opportunities that African Americans could pursue. Nevertheless, Du Bois’s albums also received special recognition and prizes. Both sets of photographs demonstrated that African Americans were thoroughly capable human beings making significant contributions to the nation.

Washington, perhaps to counter the attention that Du Bois received, published the book A New Negro for a New Century, illustrated with photographic portraits of important African Americans in 1900. The term “New Negro” was coined in 1895 to describe the new elite group of educated and affluent African American professionals who were markedly different from an older generation born under slavery. The “Old Negro” figure was the point of departure for the bulk of the denigrating stereotypes that circulated in the culture. For example, the Aunt Jemima advertising icon had only just debuted at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. While African American image-makers consistently created works that venerated the “Old Negro,” it was the “New Negro” that captured their imagination and African American leaders, regardless of their ideological stance, embraced photography as the means to envision this new cultural ideal.

Notable photographers from this period include Arthur P. Bedou (1882–1966), who photographed Washington extensively; Cornelius Marion Battey (1873–1927), who was hired to form the Photographic Division at Tuskegee; Battey’s students: P. H. Polk (1898–1984), Elise Forrest Harleston (1891–1970), Andrew T. Kelley (c. 1890–1965), and Ellie Lee Weems (1901–1983); and Addison Scurlock (1883–1964), the official photographer of Howard University in Washington, DC. They would set the stage for the explosion of African American photography that came after World War I.

1. Harlem Renaissance.

The Great War galvanized African Americans. The war effort’s demand for labor intensified the migration of African Americans from the rural South to urban centers in the North and West, resulting in the largest demographic shift of African Americans in the history of the nation. The modernization and urbanization of African Americans during this Great Migration fostered a sense of a national Black community with common goals and desires and a defined leadership that articulated this group’s views to the larger national community. When African American soldiers were allowed to join the war as combatants and performed with exceptional valor, African Americans felt that they had demonstrated the validity of their claims for equality and full citizenship. The New Negro icon gained in importance as a symbol that communicated these ideas to the national audience.

African American photographers played a crucial role in developing the iconography of the modern, urbane African American. African Americans patronized a growing number of African American photographers who operated studios in the segregated urban communities that they found themselves settling in. Larger cities with substantial African American populations, such as New York City’s Harlem, the largest and most culturally significant African American community in the nation, provided enough business for multiple photography studios. Despite the existence of snapshot photography, formal studio portraiture was the consumer preference during this period. For African Americans, photographers like James Van Der Zee, Eddie Elcha (b 1885), Paul Poole (1886–c. 1955), Richard S. Roberts (1881–1936), and Florestine Perrault Collins (1895–1987) enabled them to refashion themselves as New Negroes.

The Harlem photographer James L. Allen (1907–1977) played a special role in the development of New Negro iconography. He photographed the cultural, intellectual, and political elite of the African American community. The men and women of arts and letters who created the cultural products of the so-called Harlem Renaissance, or New Negro cultural movement, and the leaders who advocated on behalf of African Americans, most of whom passed through Harlem during this period, posed for Allen. Allen pursued an artistic career and therefore shared their aesthetic sensibilities and aspirations. Not only did he exhibit his work alongside theirs, Allen’s portraits of these figures were widely reproduced in African American periodicals as New Negro exemplars for others to emulate.

2. Documentary photography.

Like other periodical publications, African American periodicals took advantage of the halftone printing process that allowed for the mass duplication of photographs alongside text. With the invention of the 35-mm single-lens reflex camera, candid street photography became easier and publishers were able to get those images to their audiences rapidly. Photography became the predominant vehicle for the dissemination of visual information. Since periodicals for the Euro-American audience tended to only include African American topics of the most salacious or pathological nature, African American photojournalists emerged to record a community-based perspective of everyday African American life. Photographers like Allen E. Cole (1893–1970); Charles “Teenie” Harris (1908–1998); Robert Scurlock (1916–1994) and George H. Scurlock (1919–2005); Moneta J. Sleet (1926–1996); Morgan Smith (1910–1993) and Marvin Smith (1910–2003); and Ernest C. Withers (1922–2007) supplied an image of African American life that countered the generally negative opinion that held sway in the American imagination.

Photographers interested in recording everyday life also published extended photographic essays in book format. Sometimes they worked independently or were commissioned by both businesses and nonprofit organizations to produce projects. Many photographers of all racial heritages found African American life and sites like Harlem a compelling photographic subject. Due to the severe impact of the Great Depression on African Americans, these so-called documentary photographers, however liberal and sympathetic, tended to approach the African Americans they documented as victims. The Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), created by the federal government in 1935, which hired many of the leading photographers of the era, set the prevailing tone for documentary photography and encouraged this romanticized “aesthetic of poverty.”

It was not until 1942 that Gordon Parks became the first African American photographer hired for the FSA project. Parks would continue to work with Roy Stryker, the project’s director, when the FSA was converted to the Office of War Information with the outbreak of World War II. After the war, Parks would be the first African American hired as a staff photographer for Life magazine. Robert H. McNeill (1917–2005) also worked for a New Deal era federal agency, the Federal Writers’ Project, which resulted in the publication of The Negro in Virginia (1940). Such projects underscored the role that racism played in shaping the lives of African Americans, a perspective that would carry through African American photojournalism during the Civil Rights era and beyond.

Roy DeCarava formed a crucial link between the artistic aspirations of the Harlem Renaissance and contemporary art photography. Born in Harlem, DeCarava studied art at the Cooper Union, the Harlem Community Art Center, and the George Washington Carver School. He turned exclusively to photography in 1949 and became the first African American to receive a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in 1952. The fellowship resulted in the publication of The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955), a photographic essay of Harlem that featured a text by famed poet Langston Hughes. Although these early images were similar to street photographs, DeCarava always saw the camera as a means of artistic expression. Using black-and-white film, available light, and an exacting printing technique, DeCarava created works like The Hallway (1953; Washington, DC, N.G.A.) that extend beyond the literal description of places, people, and things to make powerful symbolic and emotive statements.

Uncomfortable with the demands of commercial freelance photography, DeCarava switched to teaching in 1975. He was a member of the faculty of Hunter College up until his death. He also constantly strove to promote photography as a fine art. In 1955 he opened A Photographer’s Gallery, one of the first galleries in New York devoted exclusively to fine art photography. From 1963 to 1966 he ran the Kamoinge Workshop for African American photographers. Opposing its approach to photography and African American art, DeCarava declined to participate in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1969 exhibition, Harlem on My Mind. DeCarava’s photographic work has been the subject of many exhibitions including a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1996. For his contributions, DeCarava was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2006.

3. Contemporary photography.

Important social phenomena led to the most recent developments in African American photography: the impact of desegregation and the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s and the resurgence of a photography market, increased availability of photographic instruction, and scholarship on photography. Such photographers as Dawoud Bey, Albert Chong (b 1958), Lorna Simpson, Pat Ward Williams (b 1948), and Carrie Mae Weems have paid special attention to the history of photography and how African Americans have been represented in photographs as a key facet of their work. They tend to combine traditional photography with other media and text and make multi-paneled pieces on a large scale to create works that bear much in common with other contemporary art practices. Many photographers have also embraced the use of color and the digital revolution.

Bibliography

  • Willis, Deborah. Black Photographers, 1840–1940: An Illustrated Bio-Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1985.
  • Willis, Deborah. Black Photographers, 1940–1988: An Illustrated Bio-Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1988.
  • Willis, Deborah. Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.
  • Wilson, Jackie Napoleon. Hidden Witness: African-American Images from the Dawn of Photography to the Civil War. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
  • Millstein, Barbara Head, ed. Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers. New York: Brooklyn Museum of Art in association with Merrell, 2001.
  • Willis, Deborah and Lewis, David Levering. A Small Nation of People: W. E. B. Du Bois and African American Portraits of Progress. New York: Amistad, 2003.
  • Kelbaugh, R. Introduction to African American Photographs: 1840–1950: Identification, Research, Care and Collecting. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 2005.
  • Wallis, Bruce and Willis, Deborah. African American Vernacular Photography: Selected From the Daniel Cowin Collection. New York: International Center of Photography, 2005.
  • Blair, Sara. Harlem Crossroads: Black Writers and the Photograph in the Twentieth Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.
  • Willis, Deborah. Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present. New York: Norton, 2009.
  • Duganne, Erina. The Self in Black and White: Race and Subjectivity in Postwar American Photography. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2010.
  • Raiford, Leigh. Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare: Photography and the African American Freedom Struggle. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
  • Wallace, Maurice O. and Smith, Shawn Michelle, eds. Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012.
  • Willis, Deborah and Krauthamer, Barbara. Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013.
  • Everleigh, Darcy and others. Unseen: Unpublished Black History from the New York Times Photo Archives. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2017.
  • Smith, Shawn Michelle. Photographic Returns: Racial Justice and the Time of Photography. Durham: Duke University Press, 2020.

VI. Vernacular art.

  • Jenifer P. Borum, revised by Jessica M. Ditillio

A field of African American visual culture that ranges from popular decorative, commemorative, and healing practices to the creative production of individual artists who have gained recognition in the art world as folk, outsider, visionary, and self-taught artists. Grounded in the African Diaspora, these practices are culturally syncretic, mixing African signifying practices—from cultures such as those of the Yoruba, Kongo, Fon, and Ejagham—with those of European American cultures throughout the Americas and the Caribbean. African American vernacular art flourished initially in the American South, but with the Great Migration spread to major urban centers across the United States. This category may be roughly divided into the following practices that are not mutually exclusive: cemetery decoration, yardwork, rootwork, spirit-writing, woodcarving, ceramics, and textile work.

1. Influence of African art.

Preeminent scholar and pioneering art historian Robert Farris Thompson contextualized much African American vernacular art within the way of life of the Bakongo people. Tracing ever-changing cultural continuations, from the Kongo culture (in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaïre) to the Americas, Thompson identified a central locus of vernacular expression in varied practices of cemetery decoration to both honor and guide the spirits of the dead, such as the use of plates, cups, seashells (predominantly white), carved chickens, trees adorned with empty bottles, found or constructed images of airplanes or other vehicles to signify spirit passage, and the repeated use of circular-shaped objects derived from variations on the Bakongo cosmological map or “cosmogram,” or cross within a circle. Another crucial Bakongo tradition related to these practices is that of nkisi (pl. minkisi): charms or bundles filled with medicinal objects and materials intended to guide the spirit.

These funerary and medicinal practices have been reinvented at the grassroots level by African Americans who practice yardwork, some of whom have been recognized for extraordinary inventiveness. One of the first African American yards to receive serious attention was that of Henry Dorsey of Brownsboro, KY. Thompson broke new ground by “reading” Dorsey’s elaborate yard according to his knowledge of Kongo culture and philosophy, recognizing spirit-directing messages in his assortment of found objects such as fans, tires, machine parts, and carefully displayed dolls. Thompson also devoted serious attention to Gyp Packnett of Centerville, MI, and with the help of art historian Judith McWillie, presented elements from his yard in his exhibition Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas (1992) at the Museum for African Art in New York.

Anthropologist Grey Gundaker has recognized “vernacular literacy” at work in yardwork and has effectively “read” a number of extraordinary African American yards, including that of William Edmondson of Nashville, TN, the first African American to have been given a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1938. Thompson, McWillie, and Gundaker have made the case for understanding African American yardwork as more than simply decorative, but rather a continuation of cultural signification that cannot be reduced to the Western notion of artistic expression. Nevertheless, yardwork and discrete assemblages constructed by means of yardwork strategies, have been received, collected, analyzed, and celebrated as works of art.

Lonnie Holly’s elaborate yards in Alabama (now destroyed) gained the attention of curators of folk art and so-called outsider art. His discrete assemblages are now highly valued and are included in the collections of the American Folk Art Museum in New York, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, among many others. Another artist whose work began in, but moved away from, the yard context is Thornton Dial, who has become known not only for his mixed-media assemblages but also for his major canvases and large-scale, lyrical drawings. Other African American yardworkers who have been recognized as major artists include the Reverend George Kornegay (1913–2014) of Brent, AL; David Butler (1898–1997) of Patterson, LA; Nellie Mae Rowe (1900–1982) of Atlanta, GA; Joe Minter (b 1935) of Birmingham, AL; T. Smith of Hazlehurst, MS; Joe Light (1934–2005) of Memphis, TN; Robert Howell of Richmond, VA; and Curtis Cuffie (1955–2002) of New York.

Thompson recognized the healing impulse of the nkisi tradition as generative of a range of creative practices, including The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly (c. 1950–1964; Washington, DC, Smithsonian Amer. A. Mus.) by James Hampton (1909–1964), an extensive throne and altar built of found furniture, mixed-media, and tinfoil in a garage in Washington, DC. This monument was intended to be housed within a storefront church. Another grouping of artists whose works grew out of nkisi are rootworkers—individuals using tree roots as charms within practices known as hoodoo or conjure. Rootworkers who have gained recognition by other artists include Bessie Harvey of Alcoa, TN; and Ralph Griffin (1925–1992) of Girard, GA. Both artists used paint and mixed-media to transform found roots, branches, and stumps into anthropomorphic and zoomorphic works. The healing intention of the nkisi continued in Harvey’s work, which she intended to carry properties of spiritual healing literally. Another example of the continuation and reinvention of nkisi in African American vernacular art is the legacy of the so-called Philadelphia Wireman, the name given to the anonymous artist responsible for producing two boxes full of small, overwrought, intensely wrapped wire and mixed-media objects, recovered on a street in Philadelphia in 1982.

A dominant but nevertheless significant category of African American vernacular art has grown out of African diasporic spirit-writing practices. Although diaspora scholars have extended the notion of vernacular literacy to all of African American visual culture—including visual “puns” in yardwork—specific graphic practices derived from Nsibidi script and the above-mentioned Kongo cosmographic sign system, or dikenga, among many others. Essentially syncretic, diasporic practices have mixed with the European religious notion of glossolalia (“speaking in tongues”). Individuals whose inventive script-writing practices have been received as art included John B. Murray (1908–1988) of Glasgock County, GA, whose feather spirit-writing evolved into a painting practice often described as expressionistic; Zebedee Armstrong (1911–1993), who painted clocks and timepieces; and Mattie Blackman of Colquit, GA, who surrounded the perimeter of her yard with bottles painted with spirit-script for the purpose of protection.

2. Ceramics and sculpture.

African Americans have produced pottery and other ceramic arts since at least the early 19th century, when enslaved workers were conscripted as the primary labor force in the ceramic industry of Old Edgefield, SC, the birthplace of American pottery. While the work of most enslaved potters was unsigned and unattributed, one “Dave the Potter,” David Drake (1801–1870s) signed more than one hundred pieces. In addition to his signature, Dave the Potter carved rhyming couplets into the bottom of some of his vessels. Ceramic face-vessels (or face-jugs), also probably of Bakongo origin, spread through the African Americas. Predominantly a Southern art form, face-vessels vary widely, but the common thread is a grotesque and often humorous physiognomy. The mixed-media clay skulls of James “Son Ford” Thomas (1926–1993) of Leland, MS, represent a particular reinvention of this ongoing genre.

Sculpture, in both stone and wood, constitute a significant element of African American vernacular art. William Edmondson, mentioned above for his yardwork, carved human figures and animals in limestone. Woodcarvers of note include William Rodgers and Jesse Aaron (1887–1979) of Lake City, FL, who both carved walking sticks; Elijah Pierce (1892–1984) of Columbus, OH; and his student, Leroy Almon Sr. (1938–1997) of Tallapoosa, FL, who both crafted relief carvings ranging from moral (Christian) narratives to African American history. An outstanding woodcarver whose work ranged from chairs to enigmatic abstract shapes was Leroy Person (1907–1985) of Occoneechee, NC. Although much of Person’s work is extant in major collections, much has been lost, including the artist’s elaborate carvings on his house and the surrounding fence. Another carver of great talent was Ulysses S. Davis (1914–1990) of Savannah, GA, whose varied woodcarvings ranged from portrait busts of US presidents to fantastical creatures, to abstract forms.

3. Quilts.

Art historian Maude Southwell Wahlman has argued convincingly for the understanding of African American quiltmaking as a continuation of African textile production. She has identified a number of traits marking continuity in this diasporic continuation of textile-making: verticality of design, the use of bright colors, large designs, asymmetry, improvisation, and symbolic forms, among many others. An early quilter of note was Harriet Powers of Athens, GA, whose “Bible Quilt” (1886) and “Pictorial Quilt” (1889) are outstanding examples of African American narrative in which appliqué is used to present a narrative. Vibrant, brightly colored patchwork quilts from used clothing and other found cloth have gained increasing popularity, especially the quilts made by women in rural Gee’s Bend, AL, including Mary Lee Bendolph (b 1935), Ruth Pettway Mosely (1928–2006), Loretta Pettway (b 1942), and Annie Mae Young (1928–2013), among many others. In addition to viewing quilts in the context of African diasporic practices and African American vernacular culture, scholars are increasingly understanding them as an important part of American modernist abstraction.

4. Exhibitions of vernacular art.

There have been many exhibitions of African American vernacular art. A short sampling includes: Black Quilters (1980; New Haven, Yale U. Sch. A. & Archit. Gal.), Another Face of the Diamond: Pathways Through the Black Atlantic South (1989; New York, INTAR Latin American Gallery), Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas (1993; New York, Mus. Afr. A.), The Migration of Meaning (1992; New York, INTAR Latin American Gallery), The Quilts of Gee’s Bend (2002, Houston, TX, Mus. F.A.), and Ancestry and Innovation: African-American Art From the Collection (2005; New York, Amer. Folk A. Mus.).

In the 2010s many exhibitions of African American vernacular art brought lesser-known self-taught artists from the American South into the canon, such as Thornton Dial, Ronald Lockett (1965–1998), Bessie Harvey, and Purvis Young (1943–2010). As much as the attention given to vernacular African American art has been celebrated in recent decades, art historian Bridget R. Cooks argues that American museums’ presentation of African American vernacular art as “primitive” or inherently outside so-called fine art, served to reinforce the inferior status of African American artists even as it celebrated their work. More recently, the ways that African American vernacular art has been exhibited have shifted. Curators have begun tracing connections between vernacular art and the work of formally trained contemporary American artists. For example, the 2018 exhibition Outliers and Vanguard Art at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, sought to recuperate the discussion of self-taught or outsider artists in the history of modernism in the United States. The exhibition included a selection of African American painters, such as Horace Pippin, Bill Traylor, and Sister Gertrude Morgan, placing their work in dialogue with contemporary artists influenced by their work such as Betye Saar and Kara Walker.

Bibliography

  • Thompson, R. F. The Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds. Washington, DC, N.G.A., 1981. Exhibition catalog.
  • Perry, R. “Black American Folk Art: Origins and Early Manifestations.” In Black Folk Art in America: 1930–1980. Washington, DC, Corcoran Gal. A., 1982. Exhibition catalog.
  • Thompson, R. F. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York, 1984.
  • Holcombe, Joe and Holcombe, Fred E. “South Carolina Potters and Their Wares: The History of Pottery Manufacture in Edgefield District.” South Carolina Antiquities 21, no. 1–2 (1989): 11–30.
  • McWillie, J. M. Another Face of the Diamond: Pathways Through the Black Atlantic South. New York, INTAR Latin American Gallery, 1989. Exhibition catalog.
  • Gundaker, G. Even the Deep Things of God: A Quality of Mind in Afro-Atlantic Traditional Art. Pittsburgh, 1990.
  • McWillie, J. M. and others. The Migration of Meaning. New York, INTAR Latin American Gallery, 1992. Exhibition catalog.
  • Patterson, T. Ashe: Improvisation and Recycling in African-American Self-Taught Art. Winston-Salem, NC, Diggs Gal., 1993. Exhibition catalog.
  • Thompson, R. F. Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas. New York, Mus. Afr. A., 1993. Exhibition catalog.
  • Wahlman, M. S. Signs and Symbols: African Images in African-American Quilts. New York, 1993. Exhibition catalog.
  • Gundaker, G. Keep Your Head to the Sky: Interpreting African American Home Ground. Charlottesville, 1998.
  • Gundaker, G. Signs of Diaspora/Diaspora of Signs: Literacies, Creolization, and Vernacular Practice in African America. New York, 1998.
  • Arnett, P. and Arnett, W., eds. Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South, Volume I: The Tree Gave the Dove a Leaf. Atlanta, GA, 2000.
  • Arnett, P. and Arnett, W., eds. Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South, Volume II. Atlanta, GA, 2001.
  • Beardsley, J., Wardlaw, A., and Marzio, P. C., eds. The Quilts of Gee’s Bend. Atlanta, GA, 2002.
  • Gundaker, G. and Willie, J. M. No Space Hidden: The Spirit of African American Yard Work. Knoxville, 2005.
  • Arnett, P. and others. Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt. Atlanta, GA: Tinwood Books, 2006.
  • Todd, L. Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008.
  • Cooks, Bridget R. Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011.
  • Arnett, P. Creation Story: Gee’s Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial. Nashville, TN: Frist Center for the Visual Arts, 2012.
  • Arnett, W. and Bickford, L. History Refused to Die: The Enduring Legacy of the African American Art of Alabama. Montgomery, AL: Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, 2015.
  • Herman, Bernard L. and Umberger, Leslie. Something to Take My Place: The Art of Lonnie Holley. Charleston, SC: Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, 2015.
  • Berger, J. and Iannuzzi Garcia, J. James “Son Ford” Thomas: The Devil and His Blues. New York: NYU Steinhardt, 2016.
  • Herman, Bernard L. and Lockett, Ronald. Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016.
  • Burgard, Timothy Anglin. Revelations: Art from the African American South. San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2017.
  • Cooke, Lynne. Outliers and American Vanguard Art. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 2018.
  • Finley, Cheryl and others. My Soul Has Grown Deep: Black Art from the American South. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2018.
  • Maresca, Frank, ed. Outsider & Vernacular Art: The Victor F. Keen Collection. Philadelphia, PA: The Bethany Mission Gallery, 2019.
  • Oliver, Valerie Cassel. Cosmologies from the Tree of Life: Art from the African American South. Richmond, VA: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2019.
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