Harlem Renaissance: Celebration of African Culture
The Harlem Renaissance was a period of time that was pivotal for African American artists. It was a time where African American culture was celebrated and allowed the viewer to better understand the culture. With such artists as Meta Fuller, Palmer Hayden, Aaron Douglas, William H. Johnson, Lois Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, Archibald Motley Jr., and more, the lives of African Americans were brought to the forefront with this movement.
Aaron Douglas’ 1936, Into Bondage, is a painting that shows a viewpoint from within the trees, looking out at African men and women walking towards ships that are stopped in the ocean. The Africans have shackles on their hands and it almost appears that they looked hesitant and confused as to what is going on. The beauty of the natural scenery is displayed with geometrical shaped leaves on the trees. The colors are muted slightly, yet there are numerous colors used in the painting. Douglas composed a story of Africans being taken, by boat, into slavery. This is a sad story that is told. Socially this painting brings awareness to the history of African slavery, and is directed towards any viewer that can understand the content being told. Particularly, this piece appears to direct attention towards government, Africans, and Americans so that the lives of those people will not be forgotten.
Lois Mailou Jones’ 1938, Les Fetiches, depicts African culture with five different tribal masks overlapping one another. This piece evokes spiritual mysticism, that leaves the viewer curious as to the spiritual purposes of them. Some of the masks have horns, while others do not. They all are very colorfully painted and flow together in a dance-like manner. The celebration of African spiritually is directed towards viewers who appreciate indigenous cultural beliefs. Socially, Jones’ painting encourages the viewer to learn more about the African culture.
In Jacob Lawrence’s 1943 Pool Parlor panting, the viewer can see urban African American leisure life. This painting shows men playing pool. Each of the men, pool tables, and light fixtures are geometrically shaped. The colors are vibrant and the room provides a feeling of seriousness in the game of pool. The target audience for this piece are those that are wanting to take a step into history to better appreciate the mood of downtime after a long day’s work. Jacob Lawrence’s 1938, Dust to Dust (The Funeral), also provides insight into African American urban life. He captured a small moment of observation of people gathering on the street for a funeral. The viewer can see funeral procession vehicles lined up on the street, one with flowers laid on it, several people standing on one side of the street, and a couple walking across the street to pay respects. This depiction of urban life demonstrates the similar realities that many Americans go through when a person’s life is lost. This is also the statement being made by the Artist, to show a common bond between African Americans and non-African Americans, and evokes a feeling of sadness for those who have lost someone.
Archibald J. Motley Jr., displays another aspect to African American leisure life in his 1929 painting titled Blues. With high energy of couples dancing, wine being drank, and music being played this painting depicts African American culture with music that can almost be heard by viewing the piece. There are trombones, clarinets and smiles in the Cabernet style room. The colors are vibrant and set this piece in full life appearance. Socially this piece instructs the viewer to appreciate music, dancing and nightlife of African Americans. The target audience for this piece is anyone who enjoys music, dancing, arts and culture.
Lastly, going back to Aaron Douglas’ art, a viewer is brought back to Africa in his 1935 painting titled, The Creation. In this painting there is a large hand coming down from the sky. The hand has a tiny star falling down to a man standing on the earth. Three pyramids are shown in the background, along with a vast and open African landscape. The sun is shining geometric circles of warm colors, and a large moon connects the sunshine to the earth. Next to the man is a beautiful plant. The story being told is that of birth of man, beginnings of life, and freedom of land. This piece provides the viewer with feelings of inspiration, new beginnings and hope. It is a spiritual piece directed towards people who feel despair, as it brings hope and allows the viewer to understand that all people were created equal and were born free.
Each of the paintings and artists mentioned provided stories and inspiration to those that view the art. Viewers are better able to immerse themselves into the African culture and be apart of the lives in the compositions presented to them. This is the primary purpose of the Harlem Renaissance. A purpose of teaching and inspiring through African cultural storytelling.
Douglas, Aaron. The Creation. 1935 oil on Masonite. Washington, D.C.: The Gallery of Art, Howard University. Courtesy of the Aaron and Alta Sawyer Douglas Foundation.
Douglas Aaron. Into Bondage. 1936 oil on canvas. Washington D.C.: Collection of Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Jones, Lois Mailou. Les Fetiches. 1938 oil on linen. USA: National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institute.
Lawrence, Jacob. Dust to Dust (The Funeral). 1938 gouache on paper. Seattle, WA: Courtesy of the Francine Seders Gallery.
Lawrence, Jacob. Pool Parlor. 1942 gouache and watercolor on paper. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund. NY: ARS, NY and DACS London (2004).
Motley Jr., Archibald J. Blues. 1929 oil on canvas. In collection of Archie Motley and Valerie Gerrard Browne.