In Conversation: Modern African American Art At Peabody Essex Museum

Photo: Gene Young

Sculptor Sargent Johnson’s avowed mission to depict the “pure American Negro, … aiming to show the natural beauty and dignity in that characteristic lip and that characteristic hair, bearing, and manner; and I wish to show that [black] beauty not so much to the white man as to the Negro himself” led to a series of copper masks based on African examples. The prize example, “Mask,” 1930–35, is a highlight of the exhibition.

SALEM, MASS. — Drawing on what is considered the world’s largest and finest collection of African American art (2,000 works by 200 artists), the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) has assembled a rich selection of works that reflect a period of profound change in Twentieth Century American society. “In Conversation: Modern African American Art,” organized by Virginia Mecklenburg, SAAM’s senior curator of painting and sculpture, includes 100 paintings, prints, photographs and sculpture by 43 black artists who lived through this period of turmoil and progress. “These works,” says Elizabeth Broun, director of SAAM, “are vital to understanding the complex American experience.”

Now on national tour, the exhibition is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum through September 2. Showcased are not only the big stars of African American art, but a number of lesser-known but highly accomplished artists.

Living through social, political and cultural movements that came to define the last century, African American artists explored their identity through diverse media and in varied styles. As Mecklenburg observes, “Visitors will be struck not only by the power of these artworks, but also the variety of the pieces on display. So many new movements and styles grew out of the tumult of the Twentieth Century, and these works reflect that diversity.”

Looming behind many of the works is the influence of scholar Alain Locke, who in the 1920s began urging African American artists to restore art to the center of black life, to make art a liberating force for their people and to draw on their African roots for artistic inspiration.

Locke’s persuasive views were reflected in that hotbed of black creativity, the Harlem Renaissance, which flourished beginning in the 1920s. Its outpouring of literature, music and art marked a turning point in African American culture.

Appropriately, a highlight of the exhibition is the first gift of an African American artwork to SAAM, “Mask,” circa 1930–35, by Sargent Johnson, one of the few Harlem Renaissance sculptors. Based on African examples, “Mask” depicts in copper a youngish woman with elaborately braided hair, raised eyebrows, large eyes, full lips and regal bearing. An early example of black is beautiful.

Concerned about distorted images of black people in the 1930s and 1940s, academically trained Allan Rohan Crite depicted his Boston neighbors “as the human beings they are,” notably in “School’s Out,” 1936. It shows predominately African American school girls crowding a street after classes, some accompanied by proud and sturdy mothers.

Photographers like Roland L. Freeman, Roy DeCarava, Earlie Hudnall Jr, Robert McNeill, Gordon Parks and James Van Der Zee documented the lives of African American people, North and South, in the context of their communities. Some of their most memorable pictures are of streetwise, but vulnerable black youngsters, and the unemployed looking for work.

Contemporary photographer Marilyn Nance is concerned about family, the African diaspora and spiritual connections among African Americans. As a visual artist focused on spirituality, she tells stories through moving views of baptisms, church services and funerals.

Other artists interested in African American religion/spirituality include Benny Andrews, son of sharecroppers, who relied on memory to depict people he knew growing up in Georgia, as well as more universal themes. “Portrait of Black Madonna” pays tribute both to motherhood and the strength of women everywhere.

Workers/laborers have long been a concern of black artists. Frederick Brown (b 1945) revived the legend of John Henry, the powerful black man who drove spikes into rocks to blast railroads through mountains. He successfully challenged his bosses’ new steam-powered drill, proving he could work faster and longer, but died from the superhuman effort. Brown’s symbol-filled “John Henry,” 1979, associated his hero with the plight of modern-day laid off steelworkers.

One of the stars of the exhibition is William H. Johnson, who abandoned his academic style for a bright folk art manner in works like “Sowing,” 1940, based on his childhood in rural South Carolina.

Sculptor John Scott, drawing on his New Orleans musical experiences, what he called “jazz thinking,” crafted objects reflecting the suffering and struggles of African Americans. His tall, brightly colored painted steel work “Thornbush Blues Totem” evokes blues and jazz associations.

The travails of urban life have occupied the attention of numerous black artists, led by the great Jacob Lawrence, the most important Twentieth Century black artist, who grew up in Harlem and spent time in the segregated South in the 1940s. He is best remembered for his iconic series charting the Great Migration of blacks to Northern cities after World War I and series honoring African American heroes like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.

An artist working for social change, Lawrence documented Jim Crow segregation in the South in the divided sections of “Bar and Grill,” and celebrated African American self-awareness and culture in “The Library.”

Teacher and painter John Biggers depicted the strength and resiliency of African Americans in a variety of settings, including the urban location of “Shotgun, Third Ward #1,” in which neighbors on the poor side of town gather to mourn the loss of their burned-out church. While living in New York City in the 1940s, Beauford Delaney focused on the wintry plight of the urban poor in “Can Fire in the Park,” showing ragged men grouped around a roaring fire in a wire-mesh trashcan.

The most interesting likeness on view, Malvin Gray Johnson’s “Self-Portrait,” shows the rather mournful 38-year-old artist staring directly at the viewer backed by his easel and masks that link him to his African heritage. Adding Modernist touches to his academic realism, Johnson showed great promise, but he died that year before he could fulfill his potential.

During her nearly 50-year teaching career at Howard University, Lois Mailou Jones (1905–1998) painted perceptive portraits, Impressionist landscapes, and applied a bright palette and bold patterns to scenes of Haitian life. As a result of frequent trips to Africa, starting with her first at age 65, she built on her longstanding affinity for the forms, rhythmic cadences and vivid colors of the continent. This led to works like “Moon Masque” and “Initiation, Liberia,” among the most brilliant paintings of her distinguished career.

Jones’s colleague at Howard, the multifaceted James A. Porter, was an artist, educator and the first African American art historian. His Modern Negro Art, 1943, examined the iconography of African art and its relationship to black culture. Porter’s art, combining warm realism with the decorative qualities of Fauvism, is represented here by a powerful portrait of a flamboyant Senegalese dancer and a lush depiction of a bowl of overflowing peonies in a Matisse-like setting.

Another Washingtonian, Alma Thomas (1891–1978), was a public school teacher for many years, during which she studied art at various institutions and experimented with a variety of styles. As the curators note, “Thomas’ education, training and experience coalesced powerfully in the mid-1960s.” Determined to paint in an entirely new manner, she created brilliantly colored images drawn from the natural world, featuring bright, multihued patches arranged in horizontal, vertical or circular bands that come together in harmonious compositions that evoke a sense of light and rhythm.

Another artist of exuberant colors, Philadelphia native Charles Searles, was stimulated by a hometown street festival and a trip to Nigeria, where he witnessed the link between art and the daily lives of the people. The resulting study for a mural, “Celebration,” is an eye-popping mix of bright colors and pulsating images of gaily dressed, face-painted drummers and animated dancers.

Norman Lewis took up abstraction in the 1950s, although he remained concerned about civil rights issues. His misty, ethereal “Evening Rendezvous,” on close inspection reveals a nocturnal gathering of white-robed, hooded Ku Klux Klan members, surely up to no good.

The most startlingly abstract work on view is “Red Stripe with Green Background,” painted by Felrath Hines, who began his career creating Expressionist landscapes with muted colors. After moving from New York to Washington, he created the taut geometries painted in vivid hues, like “Red Stripe,” for which he will be best remembered.

Equally attention-getting is the work of self-taught Alabaman Thornton Dial Jr, who was raised in poverty in the segregated South, and learned drawing and metal fabrication while working for 30 years for a railway carmaker. Still going strong in his eighties, Dial has spent more than two decades addressing such issues as racial equality and social justice in ingenious found-object assemblages and sculpture.

Colorist Sam Gilliam began his career painting abstractions, but after he moved from his native Louisville to Washington he began to push the margins of art, focusing on color, surface and edges in varied motifs. He gained international recognition for his painted, draped canvases that hang, stretcherless, from walls and ceilings. Equally eye-catching is Gilliam’s “The Petition,” made of swirling shapes of sheet metal and aluminum honeycomb, slathered with layer after layer of color over color, which he then raked to reveal multiple hues beneath.

In many ways the most intriguing work in the exhibition is Renee Stout’s “The Colonel’s Cabinet,” early 1990s, which purports to tell the story of the travels of a fictional African American through varied objects in his cabinet of curiosities. As distinguished art historian Richard J. Powell observes, Stout’s work reflects her “personal mission to create works that encourage self-examination, self-empowerment and self-healing.”

Other first-rate artists represented include Richmond Barthé, Romare Bearden, Eldzier Cortor, Melvin Edwards, Herbert Gentry, Hughie Lee-Smith, Keith Morrison, Bob Thompson and Hale Woodruff.

This interesting and revelatory survey offers a basic primer on the evolution of Twentieth Century African American art, underlining the diversity and gifts of a wide variety of talented artists. As Broun observes, the artworks of African Americans “represent an indispensable part of the overall fabric of our nation, interwoven throughout our history.”

Already seen in Washington, Williamsburg and Orlando, after Salem the exhibition travels to Albuquerque Museum of Art (September 29–January 19, 2014); Hunter Museum of American Art (February 14-May 25); Crocker Art Museum (June 28-September 21) and Everson Museum of Art (October 18–January 4, 2015).

The fully illustrated, 255-page catalog, with a perceptive essay by Powell and commentaries by Mecklenburg, Marcia Battle and Mary Cleary, is published by SAAM in conjunction with Skira Rizzoli Publication; it sells for $60, hardcover, $40, softcover.

The Peabody Essex Museum is at 161 Essex Street. For information, 866-745-1876 or

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