Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on May 29, 2003 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of the Howard University Gallery of Art and the Rockford Art Museum. The essay is included in a fully illustrated catalogue published by the Museum for the exhibition An Inside View: Highlights from the Howard University Collection, held at the Museum February 7 - April 19, 2003. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Rockford Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:
Legacy of Struggle and Triumph: Icons of An Inside View
by Floyd Coleman
White marble forms rise from an architectonic plinth. Images of foliage, earth, water and sky form an ensemble of colors and textures. Lush oil-glazed surfaces betray subtle human forms beneath. Close-up forms in framed spaces construct a site where multiple meanings and valorizations establish a special sense of place and the promise of a continuous, purposeful future. These perceptions become well known figures as the viewer's eyes focus and recognize Edmonia Lewis' Forever Free (1867), Robert Scott Duncanson's Landscape with Classical Ruins (1854), Henry Ossawa Tanner's Return from the Crucifixion (1936) and Charles White's Progress of the American Negro (1939-1940), all visually powerful works, icons of African American art. Even Howard University serves as an icon, for the history of the institution virtually mirrors the evolution of Black America. Indeed, this exhibition provides "An Inside View" of Black American life and culture.
People of African ancestry in North America have dedicated themselves to the struggle for freedom and equality. This quest is not divorced from Black American visual arts production; in fact, it is intrinsically linked to it. The immediate challenge, during the founding years of the country, was to counter the racist notion of the Black man's worth as only three-fifths of a man, but the egregious charges continued through the centuries. European Americans produced ubiquitous minstrel shows in the 1830s. The imagery of this popular art carried over to the "high art" as well. Engraved illustrations, daguerreotypes, photographs that appeared in newspapers and magazines and formal drawings and paintings of the galleries and museums presented negative images that helped "to reinforce and reinscribe white supremacy." The ideology of white supremacy held that African Americans were exceptionally gifted in song and dance, but lacked the intellectual capacity and the refined sensibility to produce any works of significance in the fine arts of painting and sculpture. In response to this theory, Black Americans offered a stream of material productions and courageous efforts through the years, a continuum of black counterhegemonic agency.
Without the benefit of formal training in the visual arts, Robert Scott Duncanson (1821--1872) learned to paint and ultimately produced works that received acclaim in the American mid-west and Europe. The London Art Journal recognized the self-taught artist as one of the best contemporary landscape painters, a testimony to his genius and hard work. Duncanson's works are now nearly universally included in art historical discourse on the Hudson River School, the 19th century American landscape group of Thomas Cole (1801-48) and Asher B. Durand (1796--1886). Like his fellow landscape painters, Duncanson reveled in the majesty and beauty of the American natural landscape, but he included in his work references to the oppression and enslavement of African Americans. Using literary and metaphorical references in the titles of his paintings, the artist expressed a social consciousness that was long unnoticed by scholars who saw in Duncanson's work romantic escapism, a turn away from the Black situation in America. It is sobering to remember that Duncanson, portrait painter William Simpson and others produced works of exceptional quality while many of their kin were in chains. Their achievements, like those of poet Phyllis Wheatley, not only validate their individual talents, but represent the humanity of all African Americans and distinguish these early artists as cultural warriors.
The United States was abruptly and radically transformed by the Civil War. The rapid changes included the birth of institutions assisted by the Freedmen's Bureau and the beginnings of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Howard, Atlanta University, Fisk University and Talledega College became principal sites of formation of African American cultural identity. The role of these institutions in quickly developing a relatively large literate Black population in the South is no less than legendary. The campuses became the primary spaces for hosting and presenting Black artistic talent. A fine arts tradition, essentially from the efforts of the HBCUs and their Northern White supporters, developed in the South and subsequently spread across Black America.
In 1867 two seminal events occurred in response to Emancipation which reflect the development of Black artists and institutions. In Rome, Italy, a young American ex-patriate of Native American and African American ancestry created a marble sculpture. In Washington, D.C. a small group of people, including General Oliver Otis Howard, met to establish an educational institution for newly freed Americans. Subsequently, Forever Free and Howard University have influenced American society for more than one hundred and thirty years.
In 1871 Howard University introduced a course in freehand drawing. Courses in the practice of art were first connected with instruction in architecture, but later made available to other students. Artistic production -- painting, printmaking, drawing and sculpture -- gave impetus to presenting and collecting art at the University. With its establishment in 1928 and formal opening in a new space in 1930, the Gallery of Art provided a site for fine arts exhibitions and positioned itself to receive gifts of artifacts and works of art from friends of the University. Since then, the holdings of the Gallery have grown in depth and breath with significant American, European and African collections and an extensive collection of prints -- relief, intaglio, planographic and serigraphic to comprise the permanent collection of over 4,000 pieces. The historic works of the Gallery of Art have traveled with heralded exhibitions, such as "To Conserve a Legacy: American Art from Collections of Historically Black Colleges." "An Inside View" contains 90 works, paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings, dating from 1839 to 1996, providing selected highlights of African American and American art.
Edmonia Lewis' Forever Free follows the narrative program of monumental statuary. The Black male figure and his female companion are presented as generic Neoclassical images. While some argue that the young woman has Caucasian features, the subjects are clearly non-European. This is significant in that prior to this time, no person of African ancestry had occupied a position of primacy in a monumental sculptural ensemble. Although we are not aware of evidence of Lewis' intent to make a much larger sculpture, it becomes clear after careful analysis it was inspired by monumental sculpture. The female's kneeling position and clasped hands complement the standing male with upraised arm and foot atop of the ball with its conspicuous broken chain. Both figures with raised heads are significations of hope, embodiments of a vision of a better future. Forever Free, like Howard University, represented for Black people in the 19th century a virtually unlimited site of possibility.
Despite the nefarious machinations directed toward African Americans during Reconstruction, Black Americans worked assiduously to create organizations and institutions that would have a lasting impact on Black life. In 1896 Mary Church Terrell founded the National Association of Colored Women, an organization that would play a vital role in the Black Americans' struggle for freedom and equality. The following year Alexander Crummell, W.E.B. DuBois and others founded the American Negro Academy, the first major African American learned society, in Washington, D.C. In 1905 DuBois organized the Niagara Movement, an organization designed to fight racial discrimination which lead to the establishment of the National Association of Colored People (NAACP).
The art world in 19th century America was not unlike other spheres of society and racial perceptions were varied. Many European American artists pictured Blacks as sub-human creatures who deserved to be enslaved. Their work won the support of patrons and the favor of critics. At the same time, other critics and art patrons recognized the talents of Black American artists without bias and a few Black artists, such as Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) and Edward M. Bannister (1828-1901), enjoyed considerable critical acclaim. Thomas Waterman Wood, represented here by Charles Wilson Fleetwood, Jr., is just one of the European American artists who depicted Blacks as people with dignity, entitled to freedom.
The issues of race and representation (how should Blacks be portrayed) continued to loom large in the 20th century. Increased Black urbanization, promotion of Black culture by Whites and the emergence of the Marcus Garvey movement gave impetus to the New Negro Movement of the 1920s, often called the Harlem Renaissance.
The Harlem Renaissance was a watershed in the history of Black American art and culture. Harlem Renaissance artists, like the poets and novelists, explored the richness of Black life. The modernist figurations and color explorations of Aaron Douglas (The Creation, 1935), Archibald Motley (Barbecue, 1935), William H. Johnson (Jesus and the Three Marys, 1939) and Hale A. Woodruff (Bridge Near Avalon, France, 1933) are distinct departures from 19th century modes of representation of Duncanson, Bannister and Tanner. The works of Richmond Barthe, Augusta Savage, and Meta Warrick provided a legacy of figurative modes for late Harlem Renaissance artists Lois Mailou Jones, James Lesesne Wells, and Dox Thrash, among others, all of whom are represented in this exhibition.
The centerpiece of the post-Harlem Renaissance era is Charles White's The Progress of the American Negro: Five Great American Negroes (1939-1940). This large mural was sponsored by the Works Progress Administration and influenced by Mexican muralists. White anchors his composition around the images of Harriet Tubman (Sojourner Truth), Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, and Marian Anderson to produce a work of great power and presence. Other figurative paintings depicting Black subjects include Laura Wheeler Waring's Girl in a Green Cap (1943), Eldzier Cortor's Adjustment (1940), and Jacob Lawrence's Strike (1949). Lawrence continued his prolific production of narrative paintings during the 1950s.
Works from the 1960s and 1970s included here represent some of the important modes of that era. Romare Bearden's Projection Jazz (1964) and Early Morning (1967) are exemplary works that established the artist as the foremost 20th century collagist. Faith Ringgold's The Bride of Martha's Vineyard (l970) is a pivotal piece in the artist's oeuvre. Nelson Stevens' Uhuru (Spirits), Al Smith's Promise of a Future (1973), Wadsworth A. Jarrell's Reorientation (1974) and Charles Searles' Dancers/ From the Nigerian Series (1973) reflect the power of the Black Arts Movement. They utilize African patterns and rhythms, cultural specific structures, and resonances of jazz and textiles, digested and metaphorically projected in saturated colors and bold sculpturesque forms. These works reflect the energy, the sensitivity, the politicization of culture, and expressive power of the Black Arts Movement.
Coming out of the experimental, post-painterly, minimal 1960s, Sam Gilliam and Alma Thomas, notably associated with the Washington Color School, created abstractions that added to the quality and range of works produced by their much-heralded contemporaries. Thomas' Forsythia and Spring Flowers (1972) is unquestionably one of her finest works. Sam Gilliam's As Kids Go (1996) provides evidence that modernist and postmodernist visual language strategies can be reconciled and presented in powerful abstract modes. The exquisite work of Felrath Hines (Facade 11, 1987) completes this triumvirate of consummate abstractionists. Norman Lewis' Moon Glow (n.d.), David C. Driskell's Greek Tree (1964) and Humbert Howard's Roots (1976), among others, represent several linear and painterly modes of abstraction that add to the variety and spontaneity of "An Inside View."
Afro-Cuban Wifredo Lam's Exodo (1948) and Ethiopian Alexander "Skunder" Boghossian's DMZ (1974) are bookends for three decades of painting. The artists themselves are embodiments of African Diasporic connections that are important to Howard's history as a significant site for the African world.
The Howard University Gallery of Art has an extensive collection of prints -- relief, intaglio, planographic and serigraphic. In this small but important selection of works, featured prominently are the carborundum prints of Dox Trash, such as Cabin Days (c. 1931-35). Also presented are prints by Hale Woodruff, James Lesesne Wells, William E. Smith, Wilmer Jennings, Albert A. Smith, Lou Stovall, Claude Clark, Miguel Covarrubias, and Charles White. Although prints constitute only a small part of the works presented, they give significant weight to the quality and importance of the exhibition.
A representative cross-section of sculpture is included in "An Inside View." Edmonia Lewis' Forever Free is the iconic anchor for sculpture. Richmond Barthe, Augusta Savage, Meta Warrick Fuller, Elizabeth Catlett, William Artis, and Ed Love, among others, add to the spatial dynamics and the expressive power of the exhibition.
Over the years the Howard University Gallery of Art has retrieved from storage jewels from its permanent collection. Edmonia Lewis' Forever Free and Charles White's Promise of the American Negro, along with many other works, triumphantly returned from traveling exhibitions such as "To Conserve a Legacy: American Art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities" and other exhibitions. "An Inside View " helps us to see and experience the diversity and complexity of Black American visual art expression in the context of American art and history. This exhibition of historically important and visually powerful works speaks to all, if we look and care to listen.
1. I wish to thank cultural critics choreographer Carolyn Shuttlesworth for her thoughtful suggestions with respect to seeing and discussing the art in its cultural context.
2. See Bell Hooks, Art on My Mind (New York: The New Press, 1995), 2.
3. See Joseph D. Ketner, The Emergence of the African-American Artist: Robert S. Duncanson, 1821 - 1872 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993), 120-124.
4. For a discussion of Duncanson's place among American landscape painters see Sharon Patton, African-American Art, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 73-84; see also Wayne Craven, American Art History and Culture (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994) 209.
5. See Ketner (1993), 133.
6. The first large free-standing monument honoring a Black American is a bronze sculpture of Booker T. Washington lifting the veil from a kneeling slave by the European American sculptor Charles T. Keek, installed in 1922 at Tuskegee Institute (now University). See Richard J. Powell and Jock Reynolds, To Conserve A Legacy: American Art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, (Andover, MA: Addison Gallery of American Art; New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 1999), 112-113.
7. For a discussion of the importance of art departments at HBCUs, see Alvia J. Wardlaw, "A Spiritual Libation: Promoting an African Heritage in the Black College," in Black Art - Ancestral Legacy: The African Impulse in African-American Art, eds., Robert V. Rozelle, Alvia Wardlaw and Maureen McKenna (Dallas Museum of Art, 1989), 53-74.
8. See Beverly Jones, "Terrell, Mary Eliza Church (1863-1954), " in Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, ed. Darlene Clark Hine (Brooklyn: Carlson Publishing 1993).
9. See Alfred A. Moss, Jr. The American Negro Academy: Voice of the Talented Tenth (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
10. See Tommy Lott, The Invention of Race: Black Culture and the Politics of Representation (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1998) 1-13. For a discussion of the portrayal of women, see Deborah Willis and Carla Williams, The Black Female Body: A Photographic History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002), 1-5.
11. I am grateful to Scott Baker, Associate Director of the Gallery of Art, for sharing his insights on Thomas Waterman Wood's depiction of Black Americans.
12. For a discussion of the Harlem Renaissance and support for the artists,
see Gary A. Reynolds and Beryl Wright, Against the Odds: African American
Artists and the Harmon Foundation (Newark:The Newark Museum, 1989).
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