Arts & Culture » Arts

Harlem Renaissance' exhibit examines African-Americans' plight to redefine culture



"By 1925, a number of African-Americans had migrated north in what is called the "Great Migration," curator Alison Amick said. "People were moving to northern urban centers in pursuit of better opportunities, and Harlem was one of those centers."

She said Harlem had been overly developed by real estate speculators, which opened the door for Philip A. Payton, a broker who saw its potential as an African-American community.

"During the '20s, Harlem was in vogue. There were many speakeasies and cabarets that brought a lot of whites to Harlem," Amick said. "Also going on at the same time, you had Alain Locke and W.E.B. Du Bois becoming very vocal about African-American culture and art as a tool for social change."

Exhibitions emerged out of the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library and YMCA centers, Amick said, but that other organizations like the Harmon Foundation began organizing traveling exhibitions of African-American art and giving out formal awards. Some of the artists to win went on to wider acclaim, such as Archibald Motley.

"Motley's work is very lively. He often went out to cabarets and nightclubs and portrayed scenes of daily life," Amick said. "In 1928, Motley became the first African-American artist since Henry Tanner to have a solo exhibition at a New York gallery."

Many artists during the time also tapped into the Harlem identity for source material, specifically the area's vibrant jazz scene and speakeasies.

"The music (of Harlem) was more available, but through white patronage, the art became a commodity and Harlem became an exotic place to escape to," Keresztesi said.

The art itself was far from uniform, with some artists heavily influenced by African art, others finding inspiration in European art movements. All the while, artists were developing their own methods to present the African-American image in a way white America could not.

"It is a really diverse and interesting period in art history," Amick said. "Many of the artists who stood the test of time also traveled abroad, so you can see how they were influenced by African art, European modernism and its culture."

With Harlem's commercial success came a heightened awareness among whites of the diversity among the African-American community.

"It was the first time that the African-American middle class becomes visible, so the name 'Renaissance' is appropriate, since it was the beginning of visibility," Keresztesi said. "It wasn't that there wasn't any production of African-American writing or art, but it was the first time it became nationally visible. They were entering the scene as equals in comparison to the American cultural identity."

Amick said that most historians list 1935 as the end of Harlem's peak influence, which is also the year of the Harlem Race Riot. Tensions were growing in part because of deteriorating conditions in Harlem, in addition to the waning optimism from African-Americans that were now caught up in the Great Depression and frustrated by racial inequality.

"It was a complicated period where you have a sense of possibility, but at the same time have the NAACP staging an anti-lynching campaign," Amick said. "It's hard to remember sometimes that it was still a big issue in the 1930s, that there wasn't any anti-lynching legislation."

Despite the downturn of Harlem, its symbolic presence inspired other African-American communities. This effort could even be seen in Oklahoma City with Deep Deuce and the "Black Wall Street" in Tulsa, Keresztesi said.

"I don't know if Harlem was a model, but the visibility of Harlem was an inspiration and motivation for other African-Americans to create similar environments," she said.

Today, Harlem is resurgent, Amick said. Bill Clinton famously set up his office in Harlem following his presidency, crime rates are down and the area is reclaiming its former glory as a cultural and commercial center.

"You go to Harlem now, it is a mix of old and new with new businesses coming in," Amick said. "If you look at the type of art created then, it stays relevant and filters into art created today. These themes are still of interest to artists today: religion, politics, the whole shebang." 

"?Charles Martin


Latest in Arts

Add a comment