A Very Abbreviated Version of Black Art History
By Shantay Robinson
When Africans were brought to the United States, their culture was stripped from them. As the enslaved people were packed into the bottom of ships, they were chained to other people who did not speak the same languages or share the same cultures. There was a concerted effort on the part of the enslavers to keep like-people separate in order to weaken them and eliminate communication between them for fear of an uprising. Once enslaved, they were prohibited from performing rituals or practicing the religions they had before being captured, so they became creative in how they could hold on to some of their culture without being punished. From the start of this country, African American culture developed separately from that of the dominant culture because black people were prohibited from participating except if they were the main attractions singing or dancing for the entertainment of white audiences. While African Americans have been producing visual art in this country since slavery, only recently have they been accepted into mainstream culture.
Early African American painters like Robert S. Duncanson, (b. 1821), who was best known for his landscape paintings, had no formal training. He learned to paint by copying prints and European artworks. He is the first internationally known African American artist. And today his work hangs in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Artist, Edward Mitchell Bannister (b. 1828) was able to gain some education in the arts at the Lowell Institute, and while slavery was still an institution until 1865, he created ties with abolitionists to establish a livelihood as an artist. Henry Osawa Tanner (b. 1859), the first internationally acclaimed African American painter, attended the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts and studied in Paris. Tanner’s most famous work, The Banjo Lesson, is a painting of an elderly black man teaching a young black boy how to play the banjo. While we’re able to look at these artists’ works in museums today, they faced hardships to be artists. According to the Smithsonian American Art Museum website, Edward Mitchell Bannister was harshly critiqued by a reviewer who said, “… the negro has an appreciation for art while being manifestly unable to produce it.” This statement was published in the New York Herald in 1867.
While the 19th century canon of black artists is scant, the most celebrated time for the arts in black history, the Harlem Renaissance (1918-1937), ushered in a wave of black visual artists. At the time, African American people were better able to afford education to obtain degrees in the arts. Because Alain Locke was a champion of the arts, his assessments of the movement established norms for black art. While the visual artists of the Harlem Renaissance tend to be overshadowed by authors and musicians, the visual arts of the period were salient to the time, as well. Artists like Aaron Douglas, Hale Woodruff, and Augusta Savage played a huge role in establishing black aesthetics in an art world that wouldn’t readily accept them. While they created their own opportunities in Harlem, their presence made it known that African Americans can create great art and that they possess the artistic and cognitive skills to do so. The Harlem Renaissance was a time for visual artists to create aesthetics distinct to the black experience in the U.S. This movement also steered the art of Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden who would go on to be well-known African American artists within the dominant culture. Although the Great Depression (1929-1939) devastated the country, it also created opportunities for African American artists. With aid from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Augusta Savage was able to lead the Harlem Community Center and The New Deal’s Federal Arts Projects encouraged black artists to create art for upliftment.
The 1950s and early 1960s saw a decrease in the emergence of African American artists, as the country became more concerned with equality and race relations. But there was a movement to preserve the legacy of African Americans through the establishment of museums. In order to preserve the rich history of African Americans, the following museums were established: The African American Museum (formerly the Afro-American Cultural and Historical Society Museum) in Cleveland, Ohio was formed in 1953; the African American Museum and Library at Oakland, California (formerly the East Bay Negro Historical Society, Inc.) started as a private collection in 1946, and opened to the public in 1964; and DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, Illinois was founded in 1961.
As the Black Power Movement surged in the late 1960s, so did the Black Arts Movement. According to the MoMA website, one of the most famous artists of the time, Charles White, who is known for chronicling African American subjects in his work, stated, “Art must be an integral part of the struggle. It can’t simply mirror what’s taking place. … It must ally itself with the forces of liberation.” Jeff Donaldson one of the founding members of AfricCOBRA also emerged from the movement as a major artist. The collective of African American artists, AfriCOBRA, which is still in existence today, formed in Chicago in 1968 because they wanted to develop a black aesthetic and serve black liberation. This period was a time of black revitalization. The Civil Rights Movement had gained some traction, and The Black Power Movement attempted to establish black pride and racial empowerment among the people. And the artists of the period wanted the same.
The 1980s, we can say, belonged to Jean-Michel Basquiat. The ever-present art star that passed away too soon, Basquiat is the patron saint for many black artists today because he did the unprecedented: He achieved art world superstar status as a black man. The myth of this man is what will make this era in black art history especially remembered. He allowed those black artists successful in contemporary art today, the space to do that.
The postmodern era of the 1990s, saw the dominance of the black female artist. Black women artists, Emma Amos, Deborah Willis, and Renee Cox gained recognition for their work in a way that black women hadn’t done before then. Today, African American women can be found exhibited around the world. In 1990, Lorna Simpson was the first black woman to present art at Venice Biennale, allowing the most marginalized of people in the United States, black women, to take center stage as the world looked on. From the outside it might have seemed all was right in the world. During the 1990s more marginalized artists than ever were accepted into the mainstream art world, allowing them exposure, and thus the compensation to create lives as full-time artists. There were and continue to be a compendium of voices and perspectives on exhibit that attempt to critique the establishment.
And as Thelma Golden and Glen Ligon put it as we entered into this millennium, the arts were in a state of post-blackness. But what of the aesthetics that the intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement tried to instill? Have they been co-opted? Are we taking them for granted? How have they morphed as they’ve been more widely accepted into the mainstream? While more African Americans than ever are making art today, do they tend to play to the dominant culture? Are there any successful black contemporary artists relishing in black culture, or would that be too black to be accepted? Can black artists today get away with being unapologetically black?
The Guardian published, “The roots of the US black art renaissance: ‘It wouldn’t have been OK in any other city’” an article by Patrice Worthy on October 23. The article, about the Atlanta art scene, describes the proliferation of black art in the city. More people moving to urban centers across the country seems to be having a positive effect on the visual art world. The decentralization of New York as the art world, and the rise of social media as a networking tool has helped artists around the country to gain some traction with their careers in art. But it also seems to be destabilizing as there is no general consensus as we’ve seen with the Harlem Renaissance or Black Arts Movement. Although the artists working at either period were able to move and spread their awareness to other parts of the country or world, and often did, the New York area served as the center. Worthy is pronouncing that Atlanta is the center of the contemporary black art renaissance.
Because black people were ostracized from the dominant culture through slavery, the culture they create has formed isolated from mainstream culture. Throughout history, African American culture has formed in the confines of the black community and may have entered the mainstream culture, but for the most part, it is developed in isolation from the influence of the dominant culture. Is this still the case? Black people have contributed greatly to the larger American cultural landscape by way of their culture. While some of it may be co-opted and filtered into a whole new form by the dominant culture, it’s important for black people to be aware of their history and they should be made known of the contributions they do make to the fabric of the country.
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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.
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(featured artwork: Grady by Dean Mitchell)