Hues of History

A new show traces 70 years of cultural change through the lens of African-American art

April 26, 2012

John Biggers' 1966 painting “Shotgun, Third Ward #1” depicts neighbors chatting as the sun sets on a street in Houston, Texas.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s new “African-American Art: The Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era and Beyond” exhibit features works from a relatively narrow span of years — 100 pieces by 43 artists, made between 1922 and 1994. But those decades were a particularly dynamic time of artistic and social foment that had a lasting impact on American art, a reality reflected through the show’s varied works.

“It begins with the generation of artists of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and runs through the generation of people who were working during the civil rights movement of the ’50s and the ’60s,” also including later works that continued to process that history, says SAAM senior curator Virginia Mecklenburg.

Represented are such eminent figures as Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, whose experimental-realist work reflected their experiences living in Harlem in the ’20s, and Sam Gilliam, who took inspiration from the music of Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald for his abstract works in the ’60s and ’70s in Washington, D.C.

A little more than half of the pieces on view are photographs, including works by James VanDerZee, who chronicled the lives of middle-class black New Yorkers in the ’30s, and Gordon Parks, who snapped images of D.C. life before moving to Harlem in the ’40s. Some others are not as widely known — such as Roland L. Freeman, who currently shoots on the streets in D.C. and Baltimore. But the curator calls them “brilliant photographers whose work we think should be part of the national dialogue.”

While the show’s art comes entirely from SAAM’s own collection, that doesn’t mean the pieces are overly familiar. “Close to half the show are works that haven’t been seen here before,” notes Mecklenburg. These include about a dozen recent acquisitions — a few, including two religiously themed Bearden prints, which were obtained with this exhibition in mind.

The exhibit is organized not by chronology but by styles and subjects, which include spirituality, the urban experience, modernism and abstraction and what the organizer calls “the resonance of Africa.” This arrangement is meant “to show the points of thematic contact among these artists, but also the universality of what they’re doing.”

The show stops short of the more recent postmodern explorations of black identity that the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s “30 Americans” exhibit showcased last fall. “We don’t do what they call the ‘post-black generation,’ whose take is very different,” says Mecklenburg.

Instead, the show ends with ’90s works that still bear the weight of previous eras’ history, such as Melvin Edwards’ 1993 sculpture “Tambo,” a tribute to African National Congress leader Oliver Tambo. Like the larger show itself, says Mecklenburg, the piece “acknowledges major human suffering, but it’s also a vision of possibility.”

“Baptism” (1986): Marilyn Nance was born in New York City and has taken many of her photographs there. But she’s also traveled to Africa and the American South, capturing traditions that had been transplanted to her hometown. This 1988 image depicts a full-immersion baptism that seems very Southern. But the moment was actually captured in the waves near Brooklyn.

Sowing” (1940): South Carolina native William H. Johnson spent a decade in Europe, returning only when World War II loomed. Paintings like this 1940 work reveal the new style he adopted as soon as he landed in New York. He abandoned European expressionism for a funky, folkloric mode that drew on both traditional African art and his memories of the South.

“Tambo” (1993): Melvin Edwards’ 1993 steel sculpture is a tribute to South African anti-apartheid leader Oliver Tambo, made the year of his death. It includes broken chains, symbolizing freedom, and tools, ready to build a new country. But there are also weapons. “The shield has been put down,” says curator Virginia Mecklenburg, “but the spear is still at hand, just in case.”

“Bar and Grill” (1941): In 1941, Pittsburgh-bred Jacob Lawrence made his first trip to the South, which Mecklenburg says he had previously romanticized. The artist’s experience of life under Jim Crow laws was eye-opening and yielded paintings like this depiction of a joint divided down the middle by a fence. It’s colorful but stark, more angry than nostalgic.

“Zombie Jamboree” (1988): The Jamaican childhood of Keith Morrison, formerly chairman of the University of Maryland’s art department, is echoed in this large painting. Animals, including a floating snake, engage in a funeral ritual in a bright tropical setting. The haunted image has personal significance: The shrouded corpse recalls the friend who drowned when he and Morrison were boys.

Smithsonian American Art Museum, 8th and F streets NW; April 27 through Sept. 3, free; 202-633-7970, Americanart.si.edu. (Gallery Place)
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Rudi Greenberg · April 26, 2012