2018: Amy Sherald’s Portrait of Michelle Obama and Kehinde Wiley’s Portrait of Barack Obama are unveiled at their destination. These are the first works by African American artists to grace the walls of the National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C. Other galleries, however, have been much more proactive. In today’s article, Dr Nick Gordon looks at some of the work by African American artists that galleries have made available online, from masterpieces from the Harlem Renaissance to life and protest in contemporary America.

Hayden at The Museum of African American Art, Los Angeles
Fétiche et Fleurs, Palmer C. Hayden (1932–33). From the collection of The Museum of African American Art, Los Angeles

African American artists are under-represented in many US collections and making black artists visible has been a long and difficult task. One of the most successful projects has been at the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles, a privately funded art museum founded in 1976. Currently, it’s showing works from its Palmer C. Hayden Collection online.

Palmer C. Hayden was one of the leading painters of the Harlem Renaissance, best known for his scenes of urban life in New York, although he was also a wonderfully talented painter of landscapes and maritime scenes. For much of his early career he worked in a series of low-paying jobs – as a janitor or busboy, for example – while developing the style that would characterise his mature work: flat, stylised figures and a deliberate naivety. He later trained formally in New York, Maine and Paris and the influence of these schools is evident in his work throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

The selection on show at the Museum of African American Art includes some of his iconic works, such as Fétiche et Fleurs (1932-33). The painting is regarded as a turning point in his oeuvre; he’d just returned to New York after five years in France and began consciously to paint scenes that captured black experience. Among the more well known of these works are his scenes of Harlem, such as Midsummer Night in Harlem (1936), in which families, neighbours and friends sit on their stoops, telling stories, singing, escaping the heat trapped inside the apartments. But there is a deliberate lack of individuality in the faces. This may reflect the anonymity of the city, but it may also stem from his ironic appropriation of racial stereotypes (exaggerated lips, breasts and watermelons for example) throughout his career.

John Henry on the Right, Steam Drill on the Left, Palmer C. Hayden (1944–47). From the collection of The Museum of African American Arts, Los Angeles.

The museum also has Hayden’s John Henry series, a narrative cycle of paintings focused on the “Ballad of John Henry”, an African American folk hero. Henry had a premonition as a child that steel-driving would “be the death of me”, before going on to become a legendary steel driver – these were one of the backbreaking jobs involved in the construction of America’s railways and required hammering steel pins into stone to make holes to pack with explosives. So skilled and powerful was Henry that he challenged a steam-powered machine to a race which he won, although the exertion also killed him and he “died with his hammer in his hand”. Hayden’s handling of the folklore is superb, making the historic significance and toll of black labour clear, while also celebrating African American culture and pride in work.

Works by Arthur Jafa at the Venice Biennale, 2019

This theme has been used more recently, too, in, for example, Arthur Jafa’s magnificent, jewellery-like sculptures made from chains and tyres, for which he was awarded a Golden Lion at the 2019 Venice Biennale. Rather than the railroad, Jafa’s work draws on black labour in the automotive industry, and the transformation of the object of production into things The New York Times described as having “a beauty and ferocity that is entirely their own. They are at once tribal, industrial and fetishistically decorated” and part of Jafa’s “unfolding elucidation of black American life and art”. You can watch a short interview with Jafa here.

Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series at the Phillips Collection
The labor agent recruited unsuspecting laborers as strike breakers for northern industries, Jacob Lawrence, 1940–41. The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C. Acquired 1942

The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C., has another great narrative cycle on display: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series. Its 60 panels tell the history of African American migration from the rural south to the industrial north after WWI. But the story is multifaceted, moving from hopes of a better future, to overcrowding, race riots and tuberculosis in the north, and the formation of new communities. It ends with the hope for change attached to the right to vote and better education.

The series, painted in 1940-1941, has lost neither its relevance nor its power. But it wasn’t the first work of this kind that Lawrence had created – he’d previously painted series on abolitionists and social reformers, such as Frederick Douglass, and on Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution, which had been shown in 1938, when he was 21 years old, to much acclaim.

The Phillips Collection only owns half of the series – the even numbered paintings are at MoMA – but it has all 60 on view online. The paintings are accompanied by an interview with Lawrence about his magnum opus, letters by migrants from the period, and a series of videos, artworks and literature exploring Lawrence’s Harlem. To explore more of the Harlem Renaissance, you might also be interested in taking this virtual walking tour created by MoMA.

Harvey B Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture
Harvest of Shame, Ann Tanksley, from the collection of the Harvey B Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture

The Harvey B Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture and the National Museum of African American History and Culture Brookhill both have online exhibitions integrating social and historical material, and by doing so they refuse to sanitise the art by making it seem distant from lived experience. For a closer look at black experience in contemporary art, visit the Harvey B Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture’s digital exhibitions. The two exhibitions currently on display are a photographic exhibition on community building in a marginalised neighbourhood (Welcome to Brookhill, which also has a guided walk-through on YouTube), and A Woman’s Work, which focuses on black women’s labour as it is depicted in the John and Vivian Hewitt collection of African American Art.

To get further into the relationship between black art and black culture, visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which has an excellent series of articles and essays in its “Stories” section. Here you can take a look at a different African American art movement: the Florida Highwaymen. This group of mostly self-taught artists worked in a vernacular style in Florida from the 1950s to the 1970s. The artists were not able to show in Florida’s ‘White Only’ galleries, so instead sold their work on the side of highways, often depicting a Florida that has since disappeared.

Among the stories is also “Seeing Black Women in Power”, which explores the photography, art and political activism of black women in the 1960s and 1970s. Of particular interest is the argument it makes that the political voices of black women, such as that of poet Sonia Sanchez, became part of the ‘iconography’ of the AfriCOBRA art movement. Women’s voices are transcribed in painting and photography as declarations of cultural empowerment. Such iconography on placards continues to be used today as it had been in the 1960s, as the photographic artist Sheila Pree Bright’s noticed through her lens in 2015 when the Black Lives Matter movement ignited.

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.
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