Canon of African-American Artists at the Smithsonian

WI Staff Writer | 8/22/2012, 3:56 p.m.

"African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era and Beyond"

The response from viewers who round the quiet corners of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's imposing marble hallways is practically universal: there is a sense of awe and wonder when they see the expanse of artworks that make up the exhibition "African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era and Beyond."

The 100 artworks span the range of media from paintings, photography and sculpture; to installations, silkscreen prints and mixed media works, and all were gleaned from the museum's extensive collection.

What amazes viewers is the diversity of works that appear, and there is certainly something in this exhibition that will appeal to nearly everyone who has an appreciation for art. There are the iconic works that may be familiar to the novice, such as Lois Mailou Jones' "Moon Masque," an image so closely tied to the African-African-American relationship that it has appeared as a representation of the assimilation of African iconography into the African-American vocabulary.

James Porter's "Still Life with Peonies" is very much in line with the classical still lifes by artists that were being produced at the time he painted the image, 1949. Yet Porter's image reflects more than just a bouquet of flowers. It was fashioned after a bouquet of flowers that his wife, Dorothy Porter, received when she was honored at Howard University in 1947, and a painting-within-a-painting in the background reflects an image that Porter produced while on a research trip to Cuba. Jacob Lawrence's colorful, angular figures are immediately recognizable.

Photographs, which make up most of the 100 pieces, bring back the familiar both historically, currently and globally. There are the well-known images by historical African-American photographers James Van Der Zee and Roy De Carava that serve as documentation of black life in America. Van Der Zee was well known for his studio photographs of middle class African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance, giving people a lasting confirmation of the presence of independent living among African Americans even during the height of the Jim Crow era.

De Carava's black-and-white images captured everyday life among African Americans in the 1950s, but also touched on the impending fight for Civil Rights that would reach its culmination in the late 50s and early 60s. Less familiar are the silver gelatin prints by Robert McNeill, who was hired to photograph African-American people for "The Negro in Virginia," one of the Federal Writers' Projects many history projects in the late 1930s.

Roland Freeman and Marilyn Nance capture contemporary scenes - Freeman examines the street life of his native Baltimore while Nance uses her photography as a primer on her own personal life - from her grandmother Anna's funeral in Birmingham, Ala., to the cultural expressions of African Americans relating to their heritage, practicing traditional African religion, and in "The White Eagle/Black Indians of New Orleans," the ritual of Mardi Gras as it is practiced by African Americans in that renowned southern city.

Tony Gleaton's photographs are reminders of black life throughout the Americas and are taken from his series that expose the presence of people of African ancestry in Mexico and Central America.