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Saturday, October 2, 2010

African-American Painting

The struggle to create art is never an easy one. The struggle to create art and thereby make a name for oneself is even more difficult.  The struggle to create art and thereby make a name for oneself as an African-American artist is an effort that would seem to be almost overwhelming. Yet, during the past hundred years, quite a number have done just that. The list is impressive, though some of these may not be household names even in the black community. They include South Carolina artist, William Johnson, Pennsylvania artist Horace Pippin, Jocob Lawrence from New York City, Malvin Johnson from North Carolina, Henry O. Tanner of Philadelphia, Lois Mailou Jones from Boston, and Romare Bearden, also from New York City.

Gateway, Tangier, 1912,
Henry O. Tanner
The list is diverse. They span an entire generation, and in terms of style they often have little in common. What they do bear in common is a single-minded devotion to their African heritage it terms of theme and content of their work. Often too, the other side of the hyphen comes into play as these artist have drawn from the dark chronicles of their American slave heritage as well. Though their painting styles usually have some African influence, they just as often employ the Avant-garde styles of Synthetic Cubism, Abstraction, Folk Art, and mixed-media collage. Historic African-American figures from the past are often a dominant theme. Jocob Lawrence, for instance, devoted most of his career to exploring the lives of American heroes such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas.

The Calabash, collage,
 1970, Romare Bearden

Given the nature of their backgrounds and subject matter, African-American art is often dark with elements of violence and anger.  Malvin Johnson's work in dealing with Harlem street life has this quality. Pippin's work on the other hand is folksy, warm, simple, and optimistic. Lois Mailou Jones' work, on the other hand, while African in subject matter, has somewhat the look of upbeat Pop Art.  William Johnson was strongly influenced by Picasso's Synthetic Cubism in his handling of themes such as black migration from the farms to the cities during the early part of the twentieth century. And Romare Bearden's work in mixed-media collage comes very close to Cubist Abstraction in his exploration of African-American Christian rituals. Indeed, many of these artists, like their white counterparts, studied and thrived in Paris, in an atmosphere, often more accepting of their work than what they found when they returned to the United States.

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