These articles on the history of African American visual arts describe their evolution from the first professional painters, engravers and lithographers to present day conceptual art and architecture, fashion design, stage and film.
The Call for Ethnic Awareness in Art
The call for ethnic awareness in art was made as a result of the unfavorable depiction of African Americans in white minstrel shows. During slavery, white minstrel show actors in blackface depicted African Americans as lazy and slow-witted. White artists continued the stereotype by painting African Americans as simpletons and clowns.
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After slavery, African American art began to grow. African Americans were able to express themselves creatively. They attended art schools, took music lessons, and created art, music, literature and dance that enhanced and broadened American culture.
In the early 1920s leading African American scholars, W. E. B. Du Bois, Alain Locke and Marcus Garvey, issued a call for ethnic awareness in art. This call created concern for African American artists. They had to choose between creating art based on their heritage or working in the European tradition of art.
African American artists who heeded the call for ethnic awareness saw themselves in a different light. Where white artists had depicted African Americans as lazy and foolish, Black artists were now looking at themselves and their fellow Blacks in a more realistic way … as the people they were.
There was a substantial increase in the number of African American artists in the United States. Artists and intellectuals from the South and the Caribbean started migrating to New York City. Historically Black colleges set up art departments and staffed them with highly trained African American artists. Building strong art departments served to inspire an increasing number of young African American artists.
African American Art and the Harlem Renaissance
The emergence of the Harlem Renaissance in 1921 followed the call for ethnic awareness in art by W. E. B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, and Marcus Garvey, which engendered a new attitude among African American artists.
Initially, Harlem was an affluent white residential area. The nightclubs and theaters had been built for whites, but some of them provided segregated seating for African Americans. In the 1900s, African Americans started moving into the area and whites started moving out. African American artists and intellectuals were among the new residents of the area.
During this period, Americans became aware of African American poets, writers, musicians, artists and actors. Most of the publicity generated during this period was centered on the Harlem area of New York City. This new attitude has also spawned activity in other parts of the country – San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and Baltimore.
The development of jazz during this period served as a stimulus to the visual art of African American artists. Three African American publications, The Crisis, The New York Age, and Opportunity, published the work of African American artists.
The Harlem Renaissance was an intellectual and artistic movement. It provided support for African American artists through the Spingarn prizes from the NAACP and the Harmon Foundation exhibits. African American artists received patronage from private sponsors and institutions.
The first large exhibition of work by African American artists was held at the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library in 1921. Exhibitions were also held in Washington, D. C., and Chicago. These exhibitions were the awakening of the African American aesthetic in art.
The Harmon Foundation
William E. Harmon, a white real estate broker, established the Harmon Foundation in New York City in 1922. The foundation recognized and encouraged African American achievement in several areas including fine art, literature, education and music. It is most famous as the first major institution involved in the promotion and preservation of African American art.
The foundation encouraged African American artists to develop work representative of their culture. The foundation used art in an effort to break down racial prejudice.
The Harmon exhibitions were the largest and most publicized showings of African American art. They accepted all kinds of art work from traditional to experimental. Another benefit derived from the exhibitions was making African American/Black artists aware of each other. Over 400 African American artists were in contact with the foundation by 1935.
Competitions sponsored by the foundation provided cash awards and stipends to young African American artists. These awards and stipends enabled young artists to study at art schools and colleges.
The Harmon Foundation art exhibitions traveled to over twenty-five states and were viewed by nearly one-half million people. The Harmon Foundation dissolved in the 1960s. It donated its works to several museums including the Smithsonian.
African American Early Filmmaking
The first African American images to appear on the movie screen were Black soldiers leaving for the Spanish-American War in 1898.
The next films to be produced portrayed Blacks as the white minstrel shows did. When a film had a Black character, the role was usually given to a white actor who portrayed the African American in blackface. Blacks appearing in movies had to wear blackface, too. The Black characters were stereotypical: lazy, slow-witted, dumb and cowardly.
In 1915 D. W. Griffiths film The Birth of a Nation premiered. The movie was inspired by Thomas Dixon’s anti-Black novel, The Clansman. The Ku Klux Klan and slavery were glorified in the movie. The second half of the film dealing with Reconstruction has been characterized as ridiculous. Blacks were the villains in the film.
The response to Griffith’s film was The Birth of a Race in 1918. The movie was produced by a group of independent filmmakers and backers including Booker T. Washington, Universal Pictures and Julius Rosenwald of Sears, Roebuck. The screenplay was written by John Noble and Rudoph de Cordoba and directed by John Noble. The movie received bad reviews.
The release of the movie inspired George P. Johnson and his brother Noble to found the Lincoln Motion Picture Company. The company attempted to purchase the movie rights to The Homesteader, a novel by Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux insisted on directing the movie and the deal fell through. Micheaux formed the Oscar Micheaux Corporation in New York and made the film. Micheaux made over 30 movies between 1919 and 1948.
Micheaux’s films did not win critical praise but they were popular with African American audiences and a small number of whites. The characters in his movies were middle- and upper-class Blacks. Some Black groups criticized him for his portrayal of African American life.
It is widely acknowledged that Oscar Michaeux was an important pioneer in Black filmmaking.