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Harlem wasn’t always a ghetto. During the district’s heyday in the ’20s, blacks felt lucky to be living uptown. But fortunes change over time. After World War I, there was great initial optimism among blacks who had been abroad for a national cause, which led to the unprecedented flourish of creativity among African-Americanspainters, sculptors, writers, and musiciansthat we now know as the Harlem Renaissance. We also now know that this flowering happened in a hothouse; it was not to last forever, because the “New Negro” bravado and optimism were often shattered by the virulent persistence of segregation in the U.S. Even the term “Harlem Renaissance” reveals separatism; it reduces a movement of global proportions to a 10-block area of upper Manhattan, which now is a ghetto. Had the artists of this intellectual awakening not been black, would this movement have been called the American Renaissance?
“Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance” represents the true spirit and intentions of this seminal creative and political moment by moving the Harlem Renaissance out of the ghetto and onto the world stage. It’s startling but not surprising to learn that the show was organized outside the U.S., at the Hayward Gallery in London. Curators Richard J. Powell, a Duke University professor, and David A. Bailey, co-director of the African and Asian Visual Artists’ Archive at the University of East London, took pains to present works by black artists from outside of New York, such as Washington’s own Loïs Mailou Jones, as well as white artists whose work was marked by a new cultural awareness of African-American life, such as Malvina Hoffman and Carl Van Vechten. Works by German designer Winold Reiss and Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias reflect the potency of the black American experience abroad. With its borderless reach, “Rhapsodies” illustrates the little-noted symbiosis of ideas between Harlem and the other major artistic capitals of the period.
It’s actually a Chicagoan who steals the show. Archibald Motley Jr.’s paintings, such as the 1929 Blues, exalt the spirit of the Jazz Age. Motley’s images of city life and street scenes beguile the eye with bold colors, dense layers, and high-pitched rhythms. Indeed, there is music in every one of Motley’s paintings, whether it’s set in Harlem or D.C., Chicago or Detroit. He painted Saturday Night Street Scene (1936) in nocturnal tonesmuted reds, violets, and bluesportraying a band of female musicians, a waifish street urchin, what could be a lesbian couple, and a wary-eyed white police officer, baton in hand, turning his back on the evening’s proceedings. The richness and depth of the scene capture the importance of the band’s music. In it, jazz is a vehicle for communication, just as African drums were an integral part of black slave life before they were outlawed. In Saturday Night, the presence of the police officer threatens the expressive freedom of the sassy all-female band; he is ever-vigilant in case they or their audience crosses the line.
In Motley’s Brown Girl After the Bath (1931), we hear different strains of musicnot the raucous refrains of his street scenes, but quiet music, a love song. A nude female figure emanates tenderness. Her gazeseen as her reflection in the mirrorinvites the voyeur. She does not exist to be watched, yet she recognizes the person
watching. The dark curtain off to the left of the painting (which, alongside the nude, shows that Motley knew the weight of flesh better than the weight of fabric) looks as though it might close at any moment, breaking the connection between the woman and her audience. This painting plays like a jazz ballad, like a horn’s final note that aches and bends; the girl threatens to disappear before you grasp all that she is trying to tell you.
The music continues, not just in a figurative sense but literally. A jazz soundtrack plays in the room where works by Covarrubias and Reiss join photographs by James VanDerZee. The music brings Covarrubias’ dancing figures to life and highlights the motion in Reiss’ geometrically rendered studies of Harlem. It provides the background for VanDerZee’s photo of girls from a dancing school. In VanDerZee’s evocative images, many of which are set outdoors, it’s easy to imagine such music issuing from the window of a fifth-floor walk-up and pouring out into the street.
If the music ties the images together, their organization adds tension. By juxtaposing conflicting images and ideas, the exhibit’s curators encourage us to think about the works outside of the hothouse atmosphere, doubling their impact.
Two compelling film clips open the show. One, from a 1927 science fiction film by Jean Renoir, depicts a scantily clad white woman teaching a black space traveler (African-American dancer Johnny Huggins done up in blackface) how to dance the Charleston as a means of communicating. The other, from a 1919 Oscar Micheaux film, shows a black family’s fight for justice in the face of corrupt landlords and angry lynch mobs. Of the two, Renoir’s film is more nuanced and more powerful, bucking stereotypes even as it reinforces them. The image of a black man in blackface today is nothing but disturbing, yet the black man is the more intelligent being in this film; the white woman is cast as “primitive.” There is also rich irony in seeing a white woman in France teaching a black man a dance that black Americans first brought to Europe.
Black artists are often asked to choose sidesbetween representing the race or expressing themselves freely, between staying in America or going abroad, between folk art and European classical traditions. “Rhapsodies” highlights these conflicting forces in all their dissonant manifestations.
In the sections titled “The Cult of the Primitive” and “Africa: Inheritance and Seizure,” the show highlights the stark choices confronting the artists, combining nostalgic portraiture of rural Southern figures with romantic views of Africa. The curators cite Alain Locke’s 1925 manifesto “The Legacy of Ancestral Arts,” in The New Negro, in which he exhorted young black artists to harvest ideas from African art, as many European artists were doing at the time. For the most part, black artists replaced the European view of Africa as primitive with their own romanticized attitude toward their ancestral land.
At the same time, these sophisticated Northerners (by birth and by claim) viewed the American South as truly primitive. With the emergence of the New Negro, the upwardly mobile black sophisticate, the distinctions between the North and the South became sharper; this new social identity represented a sea change in the way blacks viewed themselves. Wool felt hats replaced red cotton kerchiefs. Proud city struts replaced shuffling feet and bowed heads. And the battle of black authenticity continued. “Rhapsodies” reveals the extent to which attempts to limit and define what is African-American, what is African, what is European, eventually cave in on themselves.
Nurse (c.1940), a rough-hewn limestone sculpture by William Edmondson, calls to mind Brancusi’s The Kiss. Yet he was a self-taught artist, a stonemason by trade who sometimes made grave markers. What did he know of Europe? Contrast this piece with Mangbetu Woman (1930), a bronze sculpture by Malvina Hoffman. It is a realistic interpretation of an African woman, her ethnicity detailed in high cheekbones marked by patterned scars and a vortex of hair extending out and back from her wrapped forehead. What did Hoffman, a wealthy white socialite, know of Africa? The huge, scarred-wood bust of Ronald C. Moody’s Midonz (Goddess of Transmutation) (1937) looms from its podium like a newly found artifact of a lost civilization. Its features recall precolonial Africa as well as the indigenous people of the Americas. Moody, a native Jamaican who lived in London, exhibited Midonz in the U.S. in 1939 with work by Harlem Renaissance artists.
The overseas connections are ripe for exploration. The exhibit’s final section, “Harlem as Haiti,” features all 41 panels of Jacob Lawrence’s Toussaint L’Ouverture Series (1937-38), which depicts the 1790s Haitian slave revolt against Spanish and French colonizers. Lawrence was intrigued by the idea of independence; he was making a connection between the struggle of blacks in Harlem and the Haitian struggle for independence and economic freedom a century earlier.
The section on Haiti takes up a considerable part of the wall space in “Rhapsodies,” yet lacks the kind of tension found in other parts of the exhibit. A film clip in an adjacent room of Josephine Baker singing of her “beloved Haiti” as she sits in a gilded cage totally supports the idea of “Harlem as Haiti,” yet is easy to miss. Elsewhere, the exhibit’s organizers took the liberty to include the very contemporary Looking for Langston, a 1989 film by Isaac Julien. How would Lawrence’s paintings have played against recent images of Haitian refugees in boats being turned away moments after arriving in American waters?
“Rhapsodies in Black” succeeds in taking the Harlem Renaissance farther than exhibits and readings of the past. We already know the names and faces; “Rhapsodies” provides the context. Everything is laid out so as to highlight contradictions and interconnections, the way the subtle currents in the Harlem movement overlapped and blurred together with movements a hemisphere away. This careful chaos has a satisfying effect. By putting confusing or contradictory works up against each other, this exhibit asks us how comfortable we can be with our complexity, with the Americanness of black people, and with the blackness of Americans.CP