The History of African-American Art

“Lost in a vast world of great distances and rocky terrain with no signs to lead you home. These three figures look hopelessly yet whimsically for a familiar path leading to their African home.” Dick Kappel’s Which Way Home, metal sculptures.

There was a point in history when the African artisans were enlightening the world. They were teaching the Greeks and Romans and building an art history to pass on to the generations to come. However, these great builders, sculptors, and creators were taken from their homeland and forced to be slaves in America. Their wonderful artifacts and works were stolen, destroyed, or lost upon their journey, leaving an open space in African history. Africa had been losing its cultural heritage to looters and dealers. As a result, African traditional and sacred objects have vanished completely from the continent, ending up in museums, universities, or private collections outside the continent. (National Geographic,

Generations to come had no recollection of their lost past only giving them the strength to build a new history. African-Americans have been struggling for over 100 years to rebuild and prove their artistic abilities that were lost during slavery. They are continuously fighting back to build a new future, one with history, culture, and power for their new world.

Lost but not hopeless, African-Americans have been able to prove their artistic ability after the end of slavery. This was a time when the world seemed to be moving forward and opening doors for the great African-American artists that we know of today. The hardship and pain many slaves had to endure influenced much of the early work of African-American artists.

“What does the Negro want? His answer is very simple. He wants only what all other Americans want. He wants opportunity to make real what the Declaration of Independence and Constitution and the Bill of Rights say, what the Four Freedoms establish. While he knows these ideals are open to no man completely, he wants only his equal change to obtain them.” Mary McLeod Bethune (Madyun, P.p.29).

Edward Mitchell Bannister was born in Nova Scotia, Canada in 1928. Shortly after his birth the British abolished slavery in all of the provinces. Bannister was able to live as a free black and develop his proper artistic abilities. He later moved to Boston, MA where he started his beginning stages of daguerreotype and its implications for photography as an established art form. He became one of the early painters of photographs. In 1858 he married a woman named Chrisitna Carteaux, a Native American businesswoman. She encouraged him to paint full time. He was able to have his own studio where he developed his talent for choosing a style of art based upon the Barbizon style of painting. This style involved mostly serene landscapes and scenes taken from nature. His position in the city allowed him to become a successful painter and advocate of rights for the Union black soldiers during the Civil War. He created a portrait of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw was an African-American who organized the Fifty-forth Massachusetts in March 1863 at Camp Meigs in Readville, Massachusetts. (Madyun, P.p.38). Bannister’s later work Under the Oaks won him the first prize at the world 1876 Centennial Exhibition after moving to Providence, RI. This move in his life was very successful. He was one of the founders of the Providence Art Club and he later helped to develop the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design.

Other painters evolved in the 20th centaury many finding success up north where they could be treated fairly. Over 1 million African-Americans moved north from 1900-26. This created a new scene of racial pride and resistance. One of the Harlem Renaissance’s top painters included Beauford Delaney, a pastel portraitist. He was known for his high spirit, charm and his portraits of celebrities such as W.E.B. Dubois, Louis Armstrong, Countee Cullen, Duke Ellington, Ethel Waters and many others. Delaney was apart of the Harlem Artist Guild and he worked in Charles Alston’s studio. Delaney’s work was considered abstract, however, he never wanted to classify his art in that style. Later on in his life he was able to move to Paris, France his favorite place. Paris was also where he died. Delaney was considered the “Dean of African-American Artists Living in Europe.”

Painting was not only a success for the early African-American artists, but sculpting was also. Selma Hortense Burke was one of the most well known contemporary African-American artists. Amazonia Temptatation (1938), Mary McLeod Bethune, Bowed Down (1969) (one of my personal favorites, she was the founder of the first college I attended, Bethune Cookman College. This sculpture is located in White Hall at one of the first historically black colleges.). Peace (1972), Negro Woman (N.D.) are some of Burke’s greatest works. She has received numerous awards and commissions for sculpture, and she maintained a school of sculpture in New York City in Greenwich Village, and also the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh. Her most famous image is the design for the Roosevelt dime created in 1944. President Franklin D. Roosevelt sat for the bronze figure that was unveiled by President Harry S. Truman in 1945 and is on display at the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C. Burke created works in brass, stone and wood. James Porter, a noted historian, stated, “There is an idealistic intent in her sculpture, a quality that was evoked in her pieces.”

Edmonia Lewis, an African-American woman born in 1845 in Greenhigh, OH, was the first African-American sculptor to achieve international distinction. She was neoclassical sculptor whom created a well-received medallion portraying the abolitionist martyr, John Brown. Her first exhibition in 1864 featured a bust of Col. Robert Gould Shaw. 100 copies of this work were sold. By 1973 she won two $50,000 commissions.

Aaron Douglas, an artist during the Harlem Renaissance, derived his style from synthetic cubism. Synthetic cubism is defined as paintings and drawings constructed from objects and shapes cut from paper or other materials to represent parts of a subject in order to pay visual games with variations on illusion and reality. (Gardener, P.p.1162). Douglas used this to represent symbolically the historical and cultural memories of African-Americans. He became an important figure during the Harlem Renaissance. His works were encouraged by the German Artist Winold Reiss to create art that would express the cultural history of race. One of his well-known pieces is Noah’s Ark, which is one of his seven paintings based on a book of poems by James Weldon Johnson called God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in a Verse. In this painting he uses flat planes to evoke a sense of mystical space and miraculous happenings. Lightning strikes and rays of light crisscross the pairs of animals entering the ark, while men load supplies in preparation for departure. He uses cubism’s formal language to express a powerful religious vision. (Gardener, P.p. 1030).

African-American artist Jacob Lawrence found subjects in modern history, concentrating on the culture and history of African-Americans. His subjects included the everyday life of Harlem, New York and its’ people’s history. He was inspired by the politically oriented art of Goya, Daumier, and Orozco. He defined his own vision of the continuing African-American struggle against discrimination. In 1941, Lawrence began creating a sixty -painting series called The Migration of the Negro, this series called attention to the event of the ongoing exodus of black labor from the southern United States. Hundreds of thousands of African -Americans migrated north following WWI, to seek improved economic opportunities and more hospitable, political, and social conditions. He explained ” I was apart of the migration, as was my family, my mother, my sister, my brotherâÂ?¦I grew up hearing tales about people ‘coming up,’ another family arrivingâÂ?¦. I didn’t realize what was happening until about the middle of the 1930’s, and that’s when The Migration series began to take form in my mind.” This series captures the experience of the migrating people. A sense of bleakness and the degradation of African-American life dominate the images in this series. In No. 49 from The Migration of a Negro, he depicts a segregated dining room with a barrier running down the room’s center separating the whites on the left form the blacks on the right. He ensures continuity by interpreting his themes systematically in rhythmic arrangements of bold, flat, and strongly colored shapes. He believed that each story in his series had important lessons for the viewers. (Gardener, P.p.1068).

Faith Ringgold used art to explore issues associated with being African American and women in contemporary America. She was inspired by the Civil Rights Movement to produce numerous works in the 1960s that provided pointed and incisive commentary on the realities of racial prejudice. In the 1970s she turned to fabric as the predominant material in her art. Fabric allowed her to make more specific reference to the domestic sphere, traditionally associated with women, and to collaborate with her mother Willi Posey, a fashion designer. After her mother’s death she created a quilt called Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima? This was a tribute to her mother that includes a narrative story of the family of Aunt Jemima, most familiar as the stereotypical black “mammy” but here a successful African-American businesswoman. She interpreted this story through text and embroidered portraits intercepted with traditional patterned squares. (Gardener, P.p.1122).

Lorna Simpson is a photographer who has spent much of her career producing photographs that explore feminist and African-American strategies to reveal and subvert conventional representations of gender and race. In her work Stereo Styles, she creates a series of Polaroids and engravings focusing on African-American hairstyles, often used to symbolize the entire race. She also comments on the appropriation of African-derived hairstyles as a fashion commodity, and the personality traits listed correlate with specific hairstyles.

In conclusion, even though a great piece of African history is lost, African-Americans have fought hard to build a new history of art. These great leaders have influenced the artists of today, not only artists that are African-American but all types of people across the globe. Many of these artists did not seek financial rewards but they wanted to let their voices be heard through their art. Many of them were able to achieve their goals.

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