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Norman Lewis (1909-1979) Jumping Jive, 1942, Oil on canvas 16 1/8" x 30" Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY. One of the featured works in the Columbus Museum of Art exhibition, I, Too, Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100, a must-see show of Fall/Winter 2018.

 
 
 

Wil Haygood is guest curator for "I, Too, Sing America, The Harlem Renaissance at 100"

 

 

Best-selling author brings stories of art, race & history to art museum

 

by Janel St. John

 

November 20, 2018

 

Journalist Wil Haygood has received some of the nation’s most prestigious honors for his writing. For nearly three decades, he served as a national and foreign correspondent, first at The Boston Globe, where he was a Pulitzer finalist, then at The Washington Post. Author of eight non-fiction books, he is best known for The Butler: A Witness to History, which became a New York Times Best-Seller and so much more.

It's his genuine and sheer love of storytelling coupled with an intuition to seize the moment, that's provided some of his biggest career opportunities. In 2008, while at the Washington Post, Haygood wrote his article, "A Butler Well Served by This Election." The article became the basis for the 2013 motion picture, directed by Lee Daniels, starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey. "I like telling untold stories," he said. "The Butler saga hadn’t been told and I was determined to tell it! I did not know, of course, that I would find a character as amazing as Eugene Allen." Haygood served as executive producer of the award-winning movie.

With film under his belt, the prince of pen and paper is now telling stories through a brand new medium - the art museum. Haygood has stepped into the exhibition space serving as guest curator for, I Too, Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100. The show, now on view at the Columbus Museum of Art through January 20, 2019, features paintings, prints, sculpture, books, music, film, posters and ephemera from the era. It offers a fresh look at this groundbreaking period in American cultural history, known as the Harlem Renaissance.

His research for the role dates back to 1983, when he was dispatched by the Boston Globe to write a three-part series on the movement. This put him in contact with many of the artists. But before that, Haygood was influenced as a youngster, growing up on the Near East Side of Columbus, by a jazz-filled landscape that was a direct legacy of the Harlem Renaissance, which spread throughout other cities. When the region's cultural leaders discussed an exhibition to anchor a citywide centennial celebration, Haygood was a natural fit.

 

.The stage is set for a RENAISSANCE

 

.A Great Migration, a major shift

 

 

 

..

The Harlem Renaissance was the intellectual, social and artistic explosion of African American culture from 1918 to the 1950s. Yet it was so much more. It remains the period to which we attribute the development, if not the birth, of every major artistic and literary form that we now associate with African-American life and culture. It marks the first time in America, that black artistry not only received mainstream recognition, but transformed American culture. It was a sweeping shift so great, its impact is still widely researched and celebrated, while the work of its artists continue to influence pop culture and diversify museum collections worldwide.

Nothing less than a cultural phenomenon, the Harlem Renaissance was created by a perfect storm and a carefully crafted campaign. Between World War I and World War II, there was a mass exodus of more than a million African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North. This Great Migration, fueled by wartime labor shortages in the North and oppressive conditions and violence in the South, resulted in the largest population shift of African Americans since slavery. By 1910, African Americans had arrived in large numbers, in New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, the Washington-Baltimore corridor and other major cities. Racial segregation forced them into ghettos. In 1940, Jacob Lawrence painted his epic Migration Series, bringing a powerful visual narrative of the experience to a national audience. Lawrence became the first black artist signed to a major commercial art gallery; a son of the Harlem Renaissance, he is hailed as one of America's leading modern figurative painters.

 

 
 

Jacob Lawrence, The Long Stretch, 1949, Egg tempera on hardboard, 20 x 24 in., Bill and Holly Marklynre.

 

 

 

Jacob Lawrence, Migration Series, Panel 1. 1940-41, original caption: During the World War I, there was a great migration North by Southern Negroes. Casein tempera on hardboard, 12 x 18 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1942 © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 
 

.THE NEW NEGRO

 

.A new concept, a new movement

 

Brand new to city-living, Black Americans brought their hopes and dreams of a better life. Seeking social and political change, they encountered a brand new school of thought that championed the arts as a means to attain such. Educator and author Booker T. Washington was instrumental in coining the term, ‘New Negro’ in the early 1900s. The term represented the spirit of black self-awareness, artistic consciousness and racial pride and was reflected in art, print, photography and film. But it was philosopher Alain Locke, a leading black intellectual, who published it in an anthology. His 1925 "The New Negro: An Interpretation," was a collection of fiction, poetry, and essays on African and African-American art. It featured his title essay, “The New Negro,” and works by writers including Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Claude McKay. Locke goaded the New Negro to demand civil rights through artistic excellence versus political protest and replace old stereotypes with a new vision of black identity.

This vision of a new identity resonated with other African American leaders who railed against negative imagery in mainstream media by collaborating with photographers, newspaper editors and artists, and creating campaigns to promote Black beauty in visual culture. Locke, who was the first African American to be awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, has been widely regarded as the originator of the New Negro Movement and the Harlem Renaissance. A gifted scholar, he taught at Howard University during the Renaissance. In 1921, he became the chair of the Howard's Philosophy department and remained there until his retirement in 1953.

His New Negro concept, ignited an atmosphere of artistic revolt that spread through black communities. Now a collective, critical and creative mass, black culture was soon recognized for fresh new talent...and for financial rewards.

 

.THE EXHIBITION

 

.A 'golden age' for Black art

 

 

 

 

 

During the Renaissance, African-American visual art came of age, and the list of artist names from the period is a virtual who's who in modern painting, sculpture, printmaking, and photography. Charles White, William H. Johnson, Lois Mailou Jones, Hale Woodruff, Palmer Hayden, Richmond Barthé, Laura Wheeler Waring, Gordon Parks and Beauford Delaney are all from the movement.

And so are Romare Bearden, Allen Rohan Crite, Jacob Lawrence, Archibald Motley, Horace Pippin, Augusta Savage and James Van Der Zee - all of whom are featured in I, Too Sing America. The exhibition, organized by the Columbus Museum of Art, gets its name from a poem by Langston Hughes. It illuminates multiple facets of the era and the lives of its people, telling a social history. "The most vivid backstory of these Renaissance artists," Haygood said, "was understanding and deciphering the pressures they created under. They had bills and families and sometimes relentless struggles in their daily lives. It’s hard enough to produce something beautiful that will endure. To be forced to produce such work under duress - and do it so well - is amazing."

The range of works reveal that artists literally transformed contemporary representations of the black experience, and through group expression, adapted the very American culture that sought to oppress them. "I think more than anything, the Renaissance artists were aware of their collective gifts." Haygood said. "I don’t think they slowed up enough to anoint their movement as something spectacular. The Renaissance needed time to gestate and be “discovered.” I think it took several decades for the artists to fully appreciate what they had accomplished."

In addition to art, literature and theater, the first black filmmakers and business leaders, like Madame CJ Walker, also emerged. Oscar Micheaux produced more than thirty films, most of them between 1919 and 1935. Blacks appeared in Broadway musicals, but often had to play stereotyped roles. Because of the demand for entertainment, black music remains the biggest impact of the Renaissance.

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

(clockwise from top left) Palmer Hayden, The Subway, 1930s, Oil on canvas, 31 x 26 ½ in., New York State Office of General Services /Harlem Art Collection

Sargent Johnson, Mask of a Girl, 1925, Copper repoussé with gilding, 9 x 6 x 2.5 in., Collection of the Newark Museum, Purchase, 1992 with funds provided by Reba and Dave Williams

Winold Reiss, Type Study, II (Two Public School Teachers), c. 1925, Pastel on Whatman Board, 29 x 20 1/2 in. Fisk University Museum of Art, Nashville, gift of the artist

Ralph DeLuca Collection of African American Vernacular Photography

Allan Rohan Crite, School’s Out, 1936, Oil on canvas, 30 x 36 1/8 in., Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Transfer, from General Services Administration

 
 

 

.THE MUSIC

 

Jazz - America's first original music form

 

 

 

 

 

The Harlem Renaissance coincided with the Jazz Age. Some of the most prominent African American artists - Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ethel Waters, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, were introduced to the world during this time. Gospel music felt the collective impact, while Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson disrupted classical music.

Black artists appeared regularly in nightclubs. Their innovations in jazz represented America's first original music form. American music, film and theater - fully benefited from the creativity of African Americans and race music became a commodity. The overwhelming interest in black culture was even reflected in the work of white artists, the most well-known - George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess."

In his selections for the exhibition and his writing in the accompanying catalog, which is a non-fiction book about the Renaissance, Haygood captures the range and breadth of this sweeping movement. On race relations, he remains optimistic, even as our nation is 'undergoing another racial crisis.' "Martin Luther King Jr. once said that only light can drive out darkness. Throughout our nation's history of dark tyranny against minorities, artists' light has served to change minds."

With major exhibitions across the U.S. focused on artists of color, including several Renaissance artists, there is growing recognition that American art is incomplete without the contribution of African American artists. "It's a beautiful snowball effect" Haygood said. "Diversity is a strength. And art demands a certain kind of strength." -END-

 

 

 

 

 

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