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Free Within Ourselves: African- American Art From the Museum’s Collection

At the National Museum of American Art to February 26

Thirty years ago, the National Museum of American Art (NMAA) owned no work by African-American artists. This gap in the collection was typical of American museums at that time, and some might have even maintained that there had never been any African-American artists—certainly not before WWII. But the past three decades have reclaimed for American art history the productions of African-American artists who have been around since there has been an America, and new interest has been focused on their achievements.

Thanks to accident, luck, and an enlightened acquisitions commitment, the NMAA has plugged the gap in its holdings and now possesses the largest and most significant collection of African-American art in the United States. From that collection, the museum is now offering a sampling of African-American art history in the major survey exhibition “Free Within Ourselves: African-American Art From the Museum’s Collection.” Over 170 works by 94 men and women—ranging from Joshua Johnson, whose portraits document the immediate post-Revolutionary period of the late-18th and early-19th century, to such contemporary art stars as Washington’s Sam Gilliam and Renée Stout, and Betye Saar, who was one of only two artists representing the United States at the São Paulo Biennale last fall—testify to the remarkable achievements of African-American artists.

“Free Within Ourselves” demonstrates that there is no typically African-American approach to art-making. Historically, the difficulty of obtaining training and exhibition opportunities precluded such artists from developing—or at least displaying—the kind of radical, critical vision that has been valorized by art historians as vanguard. In the United States of the 19th and early-20th century, many African-American artists wanted to fit into accepted styles rather than deviate from them. And American art, until the postwar period, was largely derivative of European work and provincial in execution. Thus African-American artworks of the era looked just like the art of other American artists. Yet, as demonstrated by the careers and work of the artists in “Free Within Ourselves” who studied or lived in Europe in the 20th century, the capacity for developing an original vision developed once the African-American artists found themselves in a truly progressive artistic environment.

One of the great strengths of the exhibition, however, is the range of early modern and contemporary approaches that it encompasses, as well as the opportunity it offers for watching unique artistic personalities rework international styles to achieve personal expressive ends. This is visible, for example, in James Porter’s almost humorous quotation of Matisse and cubism in his 1949 Still Life With Peonies; in Eldzier Cortor’s monumental revision of surrealist themes in the 1942-43 Southern Gate; and in Hale Woodruff’s 1950 Afro Emblems. It is particularly intriguing to study the way that Woodruff’s attractive small canvas of abstract symbols achieves its difference from the scores of similar totemic and pictographic pieces being made about the same time by white artists whose works are now better known. Woodruff worked in New York during the late ’40s and ’50s in the company of Rothko, Gottlieb, Pollock, and Kline, whose innovations are all echoed in Afro Emblems. Nevertheless, Woodruff seems more at home with the forms, and the piece has less self-conscious exoticism than similar works by his contemporaries.

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Another strength of the show is the space it gives to 19th-century artists—presenting enough work to establish each as a significant creative personality. There are rooms devoted to painters Edward Mitchell Bannister, Robert Scott Duncanson, Grafton Tyler Brown, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and the extraordinary neoclassical marble sculptor Edmonia Lewis. All of these 19th-century artists had unusual careers, and their work ranks with the best American artists of their genre and time.

The life and career of Edmonia Lewis is probably the most remarkable of all. Born to an African-American father and a Chippewa native mother, Lewis was orphaned before she was 5 and raised by her mother’s nomadic tribe. Educated at Oberlin College, she learned portrait sculpture in Boston, and through the sale of her images of abolitionist and African-American heroes was able to finance a trip to Europe in 1865. She settled in Rome, where she became part of one of the 19th century’s most intriguing art historical phenomena—the group of young American women neoclassicists, labeled by Henry James a “white Marmorian flock,” who found working in Rome a way to escape many of the restrictions puritanical American society placed on women’s creativity. Lewis joined them in producing the sentimental neoclassical sculptures so admired by conventional 19th-century collectors, adding to the classical repertory of cupids, Roman heroines, and portraits themes such as the Old Arrow Maker and Hagar, which drew on her African- and Native-American background. Her work, like that of her male contemporaries, is now seen as retardataire. But at that time, Lewis’ sculpture and the paintings of Duncanson, Tanner, and Bannister were considered “real” art and the artists indistinguishable from their contemporaries of European ancestry.

But if African-American artists, then, are typically “American” in their art, what happens to the “African” part of the hyphenation, the part that has conditioned their struggles for citizenship as well as artistic recognition in the U.S.? The appropriation by European modernists of African tribal sculpture as a primary source for the formal innovations of 20th-century art left African-American artists to discover their African artistic heritage by way of European modernism. In “Free Within Ourselves,” many works from the ’30s through the ’70s attest to the artists’ engagement with African themes and forms. The simultaneous presentation of Lois Mailou Jones’ African-mask-inspired Les Fetiches of 1938 with her 1948 Jardin du Luxembourg, painted in an expressionist- impressionist style, illustrates the dilemma. In one of the films accompanying the exhibition, Jones describes her Parisian teachers’ surprise when she showed them Les Fetiches: They had her pigeonholed as a painter of charming landscapes. As Jones observed, “Who has more right to that imagery than I do?” While it may demonstrate a refreshing lack of racial stereotyping, the reaction of Jones’ French instructors also indicates how divorced African art motifs had become from any kind of African identity.

African sculpture had inspired European artists with its bold designs, its radical abstracting of human and natural forms, its distinctive idealization of the human figure, and its blending of beauty and ugliness in ways utterly indifferent to European canons of good taste. Absorbed into European modernism, these aspects became components of an aesthetic vocabulary used to describe the hostile and alienating nature of modern life. African motifs became a code for the internalized evil in both the modern individual psyche and the indifferent modern world—a remarkably neat introjection of the cruelty Europeans practiced against actual African people.

In “Free Within Ourselves,” it is fascinating to observe how many modernist-influenced African-American artists have reclaimed African stylistic impulses and used them to express an almost classical, humanistic vision that is quite different from the alienated, critical one characteristic of modernist vanguard practice. The stylizations and exaggerations of naturalism originally inspired by African art are now value-neutral. And in the hands of many African-American artists in “Free Within Ourselves,” there is a narrative power and a human focus (especially in the representational work, including the photography) that extends the Western narrative pictorial tradition in surprisingly hopeful ways. This is visible in the exhibit’s preponderance of portraits possessing the intensity and empathy of an icon, and in the scenes by many artists from the wide range of African-American life.

This insight struck me with particular force in front of Frederick Brown’s 1983 Stagger Lee, a painting that can’t quite be summarized as an accomplished 1980s neo-expressionist figural work. Brown’s figures are presences, and they suggest a deeper connection to the artist’s community than can be claimed by conventional “cutting edge” art. This same connectedness and faith occur in works by Romare Bearden, John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Allan Rohan Crite, Beauford Delaney, Palmer Hayden, Sargent Johnson, William H. Johnson, Jacob Lawrence, James A. Porter, Bob Thompson, and Bill Traylor. In the interaction of gesture, material, and image, the human figure and its experience dominate, documented with a reverence and dignity quite at odds with the innuendo-laden practice of much “cutting edge” figural work. It is clear that these artists really believe in something beyond self-expression and “criticality.” Unlike vanguard modernists and postmodernists, they are not alienated from their culture, but grow out of and speak on its behalf. At the end of the 20th century, this an outrageous vision, but one that just might revitalize Eurocentric art by reminding it of its roots.