African American Art History. The Harmon Foundation. African American Art and the Harlem Renaissance.

The First Professionals

African Americans have contributed to the art of American culture as painters, sculptors, printmakers and craftsmen since the latter part of the eighteenth century. Their work was virtually ignored by critics, historians and museums.

Why African-American artists are becoming art market superstars

The Call for Ethnic Awareness in Art

The call for ethnic awareness in art was made as a result of the unfavourable depiction of African Americans in white minstrel shows. During slavery, white minstrel show actors in blackface depicted African Americans as lazy and slow-witted. White artists continued the stereotype by painting African Americans as simpletons and clowns.

After slavery, African American art began to grow. African Americans were able to express themselves creatively. They attended art schools, took music lessons, and created art, music, literature and dance that enhanced and broadened American culture.

African American Art Curator Talk

Virginia Mecklenburg, senior curator, explores the work of Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, Lois Mailou Jones, Melvin Edwards, and other artists featured in the exhibition African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond. These artists participated in ongoing dialogues about art, black identity, and individual rights that engaged American society in the twentieth century.

Using documentary realism, painterly expressionism, and the postmodern assemblage of found objects, they rewrote American history and its art.

In the early 1920s leading African American scholars, W. E. B. Du Bois, Alain Locke and Marcus Garvey issued a call for ethnic awareness in art. This call created concern for African American artists. They had to choose between creating art based on their heritage or working in the European tradition of art.

African American artists who heeded the call for ethnic awareness saw themselves in a different light. Where white artists had depicted African Americans as lazy and foolish, Black artists were now looking at themselves and their fellow Blacks in a more realistic way … as the people they were.

African American Art History. The Harmon Foundation. African American Art and the Harlem Renaissance.

african american art

There was a substantial increase in the number of African American artists in the United States. Artists and intellectuals from the South and the Caribbean started migrating to New York City. Historically Black colleges set up art departments and staffed them with highly trained African American artists. Building strong art departments served to inspire an increasing number of young African American artists.

African Americans and the Exploration of the New World

Africans had settled in the New World long before the colonists arrived from England. It is possible they may have been explorers themselves. It is known they were on the ships of Spanish and Portuguese explorers. The majority of Blacks were slaves or servants. A few were free.

Pedro Alonzo Niño, who sailed with Columbus in 1492 is thought to be the first Black man to reach the shores of the West Indies. Initially, settling in the West Indies as free men or run-away slaves, Blacks outnumbered the Europeans in Puerto Rico, Cuba and along the coast of South America. They mixed with the native people and the Spaniards.

In 1565 the Spaniards established their first permanent settlement at St. Augustine, Florida. By that time Blacks and their descendants were living in the interior areas of what is now the United States. One of the most famous Black explorers was Esteban or Little Stephen. His exploration of New Mexico and Arizona prepared these areas for the Spanish conquest of the Southwest.

The French explored the region now known as Canada. Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a French-speaking Black man, erected the first building in what is now Chicago, Illinois. The Call for Ethnic Awareness in Art
The call for ethnic awareness in art was made as a result of the unfavourable depiction of African Americans in white minstrel shows. During slavery, white minstrel show actors in blackface depicted African Americans as lazy and slow-witted. White artists continued the stereotype by painting African Americans as simpletons and clowns.

After slavery, African American art began to grow. African Americans were able to express themselves creatively. They attended art schools, took music lessons, and created art, music, literature and dance that enhanced and broadened American culture.

In the early 1920s leading African American scholars, W. E. B. Du Bois, Alain Locke and Marcus Garvey issued a call for ethnic awareness in art. This call created concern for African American artists. They had to choose between creating art based on their heritage or working in the European tradition of art.

African American artists who heeded the call for ethnic awareness saw themselves in a different light. Where white artists had depicted African Americans as lazy and foolish, Black artists were now looking at themselves and their fellow Blacks in a more realistic way as the people they were.

There was a substantial increase in the number of African American artists in the United States. Artists and intellectuals from the South and the Caribbean started migrating to New York City. Historically Black colleges set up art departments and staffed them with highly trained African American artists. Building strong art departments served to inspire an increasing number of young African American artists.

African American Art and the Harlem Renaissance

The emergence of the Harlem Renaissance in 1921 followed the call for ethnic awareness in art by W. E. B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, and Marcus Garvey, which engendered a new attitude among African American artists.

Initially, Harlem was an affluent white residential area. The nightclubs and theatres had been built for whites, but some of them provided segregated seating for African Americans. In the 1900s, African Americans started moving into the area and whites started moving out. African American artists and intellectuals were among the new residents of the area.

During this period, Americans became aware of African American poets, writers, musicians, artists and actors. Most of the publicity generated during this period was centred on the Harlem area of New York City. This new attitude has also spawned activity in other parts of the country San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and Baltimore.

The development of jazz during this period served as a stimulus to the visual art of African American artists. Three African American publications, The Crisis, The New York Age, and Opportunity, published the work of African American artists.

The Harlem Renaissance was an intellectual and artistic movement. It provided support for African American artists through the Spingarn prizes from the NAACP and the Harmon Foundation exhibits. African American artists received patronage from private sponsors and institutions.

The first large exhibition of work by African American artists was held at the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library in 1921. Exhibitions were also held in Washington, D. C., and Chicago. These exhibitions were the awakening of the African American aesthetic in art.

The Harmon Foundation

William E. Harmon, a white real estate broker, established the Harmon Foundation in New York City in 1922. The foundation recognized and encouraged African American achievement in several areas including fine art, literature, education and music. It is most famous as the first major institution involved in the promotion and preservation of African American art.

The foundation encouraged African American artists to develop work representative of their culture. The foundation used art in an effort to break down racial prejudice.

The Harmon exhibitions were the largest and most publicized showings of African American art. They accepted all kinds of artwork from traditional to experimental. Another benefit derived from the exhibitions was making African American/Black artists aware of each other. Over 400 African American artists were in contact with the foundation by 1935.

Competitions sponsored by the foundation provided cash awards and stipends to young African American artists. These awards and stipends enabled young artists to study at art schools and colleges.

The Harmon Foundation art exhibitions travelled to over twenty-five states and were viewed by nearly one-half million people. The Harmon Foundation dissolved in the 1960s. It donated its works to several museums including the Smithsonian.


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