Here are eight iconic images from African Amercican art over the years. In compiling this list I considered both the fame of each image as well as its place in art history. As always , I’m sure many will disagree with my choices. I’m sure most art critics will not agree with my inclusion of Ernie Barnes, nor with the exclusion of most of the Harlem Rennaisance. Images from that period have been studied and compiled extensively over the years, including them in this list would not substantially add anything to their reputation. This list includes images that actually are very familiar and some that are not well known but very much deserve to be. So here they are no particular order:
Henry Ossawa Tanner – Banjo Lesson
In 1893 on a short return trip to the United States, Tanner painted his most famous piece, The Banjo Lesson, in Philadelphia. The painting shows an elderly African American man teaching what is widely presumed to be his grandson how to play the banjo. This simple-looking yet poignant work explores several important themes. Due to years of stereotyping, it was very common to find portrayals of Blacks as entertainers in American culture. The image of a Black man playing the banjo appears throughout American art of the late 19th century. Thomas Worth, Willy Miller, Walter M. Dunk, Eastman Johnson and Tanner’s own mentor Thomas Eakins had tackled the subject in their artwork. These images however usually offered a minstrel type portrayal. Tanner’s sensitive reinterpretation plays against this stereotype in just about every way imaginable, making it perhaps the first true example of authentic Black American narrative painting. Instead of a generalization, the painting portrays a specific moment of human interaction. In other words, this is a portrayal of two human beings experiencing a genuine connection, they just happen to be Black. The two characters concentrate intently on the task before them. They seem to be oblivious to the rest of the world which magnifies the sense of real contact and cooperation. Skillfully painted portraits of the individuals make it obvious that these are real people and not stereotypes.
In addition to being a meaningful exploration of human qualities, the piece is masterfully painted. Tanner undertakes the difficult endeavor of two separate and varying light sources. A natural white, blue glow from outside enters from the left while the warm light from a fireplace is apparent on the right. The figures are illuminated where the two light sources meet; some have hypothesized this as a manifestation of Tanner’s situation in transition between two worlds, his American past and his newfound home in France.
Jacob Lawrence – Migration Series
Through this very important series of paintings, Jacob Lawrence illustrated the mass exodus of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North in search for a better life. Lawrence’s parents were among those who participated in the first wave of the Great Migration, which occurred from 1916-1919. This work is possibly the most famous and best loved artwork ever done by an African American.
Lawrence himself was too young to have witnessed the migration directly, but his artistic talent prompted his teachers and friends to persuade him to express those events in his work. After extensive research, Lawrence gathered enough information about the migration to compile a story in paintings about the subject. Lawrence completed the Migration Series in one year (1940-1941). When all sixty paintings were complete, he celebrated by getting married and taking a 3 month trip to New Orleans. When he returned to Harlem, his Great Migration Series had sold to 2 famous galleries. Jacob Lawrence’s life as a successful artist had begun. The paintings are now part of The Phillips Collection, housed in The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Mel Edwards – Lynch Fragments
Mel Edwards has been described as a sculptor who manages to maintain a strong identity with African and African-American history, while at the same time working within the contemporary art format. His sculpture is abstract and beautiful in its formal qualities, but when you look closely, you realize there are powerful references there to the African-American experience.
Edwards’ “Lynch Fragments” are small-scale wall reliefs developed in three periods: 1963 to 1967, 1973 to 1974 and 1978 to the present. There are now more than 200 pieces in the series. Metal objects — hammer heads, scissors, locks, chains and railroad spikes — are employed as the raw materials for his “poetic sculptural innovation,” the sculptor says. Edwards explains that the “Lynch Fragments” series is intended to be like a “private conversation,” which, unlike the larger public works, is meant to create a “one-on-one, eye-level” experience between object and viewer.
“The ‘Lynch Fragments’ have changed my life,” Edwards has said. “They are the core to all the work. If anybody ever knows I lived, this is going to be why.”
Ernie Barnes – Sugar Shack
Barnes created the painting Sugar Shack in the early 1970s. It gained international fame when it was used on the Good Times television series and on the cover for Marvin Gaye’s 1976 I Want You album. In a 2008 interview, Barnes said, “Sugar Shack is a recall of a childhood experience. It was the first time my innocence met with the sins of dance. The painting transmits rhythm so the experience is re-created in the person viewing it to show that African-Americans utilize rhythm as a way of resolving physical tension.” The Sugar Shack is an example of the style of art composition known as “Black Romantic,” which, according to Natalie Hopkinson of The Washington Post, is the “visual-art equivalent of the Chitlin’ circuit.” In spite of the art critic diss, the painting stands as a classic.
After Marvin Gaye asked him for permission to use the painting as an album cover, Barnes then augmented the painting by adding references that allude to Gaye’s album, including banners hanging from the ceiling to promote the album’s singles. The original painting contained a banner which referred to the call letters of a Durham, N.C. radio station, Barnes hometown.
During the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever anniversary television special on March 25, 1983, tribute was paid to Sugar Shack with a dance interpretation of the painting.
Aaron Douglas – Song of the Towers (Aspects of Negro Life)
Douglas, who is considered to be “the father of African American arts”, created numerous large-scale murals that portray subjects from African American history and contemporary life in epic allegories. In 1934, he was commissioned, under the sponsorship of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), to paint a series of murals for The New York Public Library’s 135th Street branch, now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Among his best-known works, the four panels of Aspects of Negro Life (Song of the Towers, From Slavery through Reconstruction, An Idyll of the Deep South, and The Negro in an African Setting) are characteristic of Douglas’s style, with graphically incisive motifs and the dynamic incorporation of such influences as African sculpture, jazz music, dance, and abstract geometric forms.
Like the best paintings of Aaron Douglas this work features flat forms, hard edges, and repetitive geometric shapes. Radiating bands of color flow from the important objects in each painting, and where these bands intersect with other bands or other objects, the color changes. One of the murals, Song of the Towers, depicts a figure fleeing from the hand of serfdom. It is symbolic of the migration of African peoples from the rural South and the Caribbean to the urban industrial centers of the North just after World War I. Standing on the wheel of life in the center of the composition, a saxophonist expresses the creativity of the 1920s and the freedom it afforded the “New Negro.” Douglas joined the faculty of Fisk University in 1937 and stayed there until his retirement in 1966. A true pioneer, his artistic insight has had a lasting influence on American art history and the nation’s culture heritage, and is a testament to the themes of African heritage and racial pride.
Betye Saar – The Liberation of Aunt Jemima
Throughout the 1970s women artists, like Betye Saar, challenged the dominance of male artists within the gallery and museum spaces. Organizations such as Women Artists in Revolution and The Gorilla Girls not only fought against the lack of a female presence within the art world, but also fought to call attention to issues of political and social justice overall. Betye Saar’s most famous work, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, addressed not only issues of gender, but called attention to issues of race as well. In reaction to lax enforcement of recently adopted civil rights legislation, many Black leaders expressed a desire to call this lackadaisical enforcement to national attention. Many Blacks of this era feared the gradual stripping of hard earned social and political gains, and there was ample evidence of this both culturally and politically. Through the use of the mammy and Aunt Jemima figures, Saar redefines the meaning of these stereotypical figures to ones that demand power and agency within society.
The background of The Liberation of Aunt Jemima is covered with Aunt Jemima advertisements while the foreground is dominated by a larger Aunt Jemima notepad holder with a picture of a mammy figure and a white baby inside. The larger Aunt Jemima holds a broom in one hand and a rifle in the other, transforming her from a happy servant and caregiver to a proud militant who demands respect within society. A large, clenched fist symbolizing black power stands before the notepad holder, symbolizing the aggressive and radical means used by African Americans in the 1970s to protect their interests. Aunt Jemima is transformed from a passive domestic into a symbol of black power. She has liberated herself from both a history of white oppression and traditional gender
Michael Ray Charles – After Black, Before Black
Michael Ray Charles is a controversial African American painter famous for his comically exaggerated look at the American psyche as it relates to class and race. Big lipped pickannies, smiling black sambos , the gracious , kerchief wearing presence of Aunt Jemima, watermelon eating, fried chicken loving darkies and the dangerous,violent black thug rapist all hail from an era of unbridled racist expression. The work of Michael Ray Charles takes full advantage of the power of such stereotypes. Generated out of the romanticized notions of the antebellum South, and the shaky self-delusion,guilt, fears and violence of early American white supremacy, this imagery, although suppressed, is still with us “like some hibernating virus waiting for the right environment in which to spring to life” .
A major series of Charles’s work entitled “After Black, Before Black “ recall a series of nineteenth century Currier and Ives engravings. For this series Charles creates a diptych in which a male protagonist with caricatured African features seems to suffer in both the before and after images. In the “before” image he is running in fright, eyes bulging, and about to run into a tree labeled “white only”. In the image labeled “after” he is arrogantly dribbling a basketball while blindfolded with dollar bills and is about to run into the same tree. This series, seems to fall back on the cliché “the more things change the more they stay the same”, implying that African Americans are a hopeless, hapless lot. The tree of course, represents the real life limitations placed upon a Black athlete who is caught in the fantasy world of pro sports fame. With all of his money and success he can only aspire to so much. The blindfold is symbolic of his blind ignorance of this fact, according to Charles.
Kara Walker – Gone
Kara Walker is a controversial African American artist. Similar to Betty Saar and Michael Ray Charles ,her work is scathingly satirical, but with a relentlessly sexualized tone. Kara Walker uses humor and a pair of scissors to remember and dismember and come to terms with a past as it relates to the present.Walkeris quoted;” One of the themes in my work is the idea that a black subject in the present tense is container for specific pathologies from the past and is continually growing and feeding off those maladies. Racist pathology is the muck”.
Walker’s use of black and brown silhouettes has become her signature. Their origin can be traced to eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe, later becoming popular as a middle class “ladies art” in the American South. Ironically it is to the antebellum South to which Walker turns for her disturbing narrative. She sees that particular time and place as a world of deep, but largely unfulfilled social yearnings and desires. These desires manifest themselves in destructive, abusive and bizarre sexual relationships. This is brought home in an installation of silhouettes called “Gone, An Historical Romance of Civil War As it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of a Negress and Her Heart”, her very first silhouette work. Inspired by her own reading of Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With The Wind” this work examines the romantic relationship between a white slave master and his black female servant. She found Mitchell’s story to be engrossing and titillating as well as grotesquely melodramatic. It is this melodrama, according to Walker which effectively hides the novels’ racist overtones. Walker used the silhouette here because it “lends itself to avoidance of the subject”, in the same way America chooses to ignore certain aspects of its romanticized past.