ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It was just a passing comment, but what Andrew Connors told Albuquerque Museum docents about the exhibit “African American Art in the 20th Century” was full of insight.
Connors, the museum’s curator of art, told the docents that the traveling exhibit “could stand as an exhibition of American art in the 20th century.”
That’s because, he remembered saying, basically every style and every major movement in American art from the 1920s to the 1990s is represented in the exhibit of more than 43 black artists.
“For example, there was the Victorian studio photography from the 1920s by James VanDerZee, a Harlem Renaissance artist. There was true Social Realism of the 1930s Works Progress Administration era typified by the work of Allan Rohan Crite. There was the Social Commentary of the 1940s and ’50s with artist Jacob Lawrence. There’s the Abstract art with Alma Thomas and the Post-Modernism of Renée Stout,” Connors said.
The artists, he said, were looking at the United States from multiple geographical perspectives within the United States – from urban and rural settings, from the industrial North, the South, the East Coast and the West Coast.
“And like powerful artists anywhere they have their own vocabulary and their own style to represent the world around them,” Connors said.
Another, Roy DeCarava, was a photojournalist who worked for Time, Life and Fortune magazines, but he also created strong black-and-white works of art of Harlem street life and New York City’s jazz scene that are in the exhibit.
Some of the artists, facing racism at home, moved overseas.
Connors said a powerful realization for him was that they had to go to Europe before they could be perceived as artists.
“Had they not gone, they wouldn’t have received the recognition they deserved because of racism (at home),” he said. “They’d have a résumé of exhibitions and galleries in Europe showed and sold their work.”
William H. Johnson, for example, lived in France, Denmark, Norway and Sweden for more than a decade; he returned to the United States in 1938 because of the rise of Nazism.
Johnson painted narratives of farm life – sharecroppers, laborers and churchgoers – in South Carolina, where he had grown up. He also painted scenes from the lives of Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman and Mohandas Gandhi and others whom he called “Fighters for Freedom.”
Herbert Gentry, an Expressionist, lived most of his working life in Europe.
“Racism in the United States helped him to return to Europe after serving in the military during World War II,” Connors said.
Gentry died in Stockholm in 2003.
“African American Art in the 20th Century” is an exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution’s American Art Museum collection. It is up at the Albuquerque Museum through Jan. 19.
The exhibit hanging at the Albuquerque Museum has 103 works, three more than are in the basic traveling show.
The exhibit also contains quotes from various African Americans. This quote from filmmaker Spike Lee is in the opening section of the exhibit: “I want people to think about the power of images, not just in terms of race, but how imagery is used and what sort of social impact it has – how it influences how we talk, how we think, how we view one another.”
Apart from the exhibit, but related to it, is Iris Graham Vazquez’s 2013 multimedia installation “The Girls,” which is on display in a museum corridor. Graham Vazquez, a black artist residing in Santa Fe, said she was raised and cared for “by the women that society would deem to be too fat, too big and too dark. These women were my protectors and showed me the way through life while reveling in their sizes and never shrinking away in embarrassment. … ‘The Girls’ are these women. …”
Selections from the Albuquerque Museum’s permanent collection of art by African-American artists will be on view from Nov. 9 through May 4 in the museum’s New Works on Paper Gallery. The small installation will include prints by Rein Whitt-Pritchette, a monumental drawing by Ron Adams, paintings by Reg Gammon and Fel Hines and photographs by Tony Gleaton.
“Oh Freedom! Teaching African American Civil Rights through American Art” is an educational website offering insights into the Civil Rights Movement through the lens of the Smithsonian’s collections. The website is africanamericanart.si.edu.