A Christ-like wooden sculpture of a male nude placed heroically in the center of the gallery immediately assaults the eyes in WCMA’s recently opened exhibit, African Americans and the American Scene, 1929-1945.
The place of African-American identity in United States culture is one fraught with emotional turbulence, as reflected in the constantly-changing representation of African Americans in art. African Americans and the American Scene thus focuses on Depression-era art, a time when the entire country’s national identity was shaken to its core.
Co-curated by Dalila Scruggs, Mellon curator for diversity in the arts, and Sandra Burton, Lipp family director of dance, African Americans and the American Scene explores the role of African Americans in the visual and performing arts during the Great Depression. Federal funding for the arts through initiatives like the Federal Art Project and Works Projects Administration provided opportunities for white and black artists alike during the 1930s. Thus, while the United States and African Americans in particular suffered economically, the arts flourished in the black community.
During the Great Depression, a time when European abstraction was looked at as frivolity, American scene paintings depicting the everyday life of urban and rural Americans became the focus of artwork. Social consciousness and commentary dictated artist subject matter, an important component of the Social Realist movement of the art of the 1930s and ’40s. African American culture was especially used as source material for depicting the American scene. In African Americans and the American Scene, black art by white artists and black art by black artists are placed side by side; the characteristically undulating paintings of Thomas Hart Benton or the harrowing photographs of Dorothea Lange hang alongside the African-American folk art of William H. Johnson and infamous Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence. Regardless of race and artistic style, what is consistent throughout the exhibition is its sympathetic rendering of the African American, a rare concept in its time.
Nat Werner’s wooden sculpture of the heroic nude boy is entitled Lynching, giving us a darker insight into the life of African Americans in the heights of the Depression. Poignantly, almost discreetly, tucked into the exhibition is a back wall entitled Lynch Victims in which the depictions of humble social activities unfolds to reveal images of the victims of continued prejudice and violence against African Americans. Conditions for blacks were worsened by the economic conditions of the Great Depression, most strikingly in the disturbing increase of lynchings.
Black art has been recognized as part of the American picture for almost a century, beginning with the Harlem Renaissance and the Jazz Age. In keeping with the musical and theatrical contributions made by African Americans, the WCMA exhibit also includes a photographic exposition on dance culture. Dance is a distinct aspect of African-American culture, transplanted from African tribal rituals (fittingly, the gallery’s previous exhibit was an exposé on African tribal ritual and dance). The artistic language of dance got its footing in the Federal Dance Project, and black and white dancers often shared the stage in performances of folk music and the blues.
Black-and-white photographs by Barbara Morgan line the walls, their stillness upstaged by the urgency of the black dancers; their arms are suspended, their faces contorted in the agony of emotion. Dancers often captured their African identity through their body language, replicating traditional tribal movements and rooting their feet, legs and hips to the ground. Also included are sketches by Herman Rosse, art director of the controversial play The Emperor Jones, which tells the tale of an ambitious black man who becomes emperor of a small island on the Caribbean, turning from oppressed to the oppressor. It is clear through Rosse’s sketches, as much as through the film’s content, that the racial stereotypes and caricatures of the black man are amplified in the realm of public entertainment.
Through 100 mostly small works, one could read African Americans and the American Scene as an annunciation of the depth and scope of the African-American contribution to American art. The exhibition manages to intimately present the humility and the humanity of the African American in the face of one of the most trying times in history of economic and social hardships. Yet the exhibit still begs the question of whether we will ever have a truly “color-blind” art in this country.