The artists that helped sow the seed of contemporary African American art during the Harlem Renaissance

Top Image: Aaron Douglas, “Into Bondage”, 1936. Oil on canvas.

The Harlem Renaissance was a great movement filled with the cross-pollination of ideas between different groups of African Americans. The name is derived from the large concentration of African Americans in Harlem, a neighborhood in New York City. In the years between World War I and The Great Depression, many African Americans migrated from the south to the more liberated north. Here, where they congregated in large numbers, a revival of African American culture began.

The Harlem Renaissance is often associated with literature or the performing arts, with names like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Duke Ellington, and Ma Rainey as some of the most well-known figures of this era. But this renaissance did not restrict itself to the written or performing arts. Visual artists were also becoming energized and created works uniquely inspired by this energy.

Many of the artists from this time looked back at their history, with some pointing their cameras at their community and some others bringing the visual language of their African ancestors into their work.

Aaron Douglass, “The Judgment Day”, 1939. Oil on tempered hardboard.

One of the most prominent artists of this time was Aaron Douglas, also known as the father of African American art. He became known for his large murals depicting race and social issues in the United States. He incorporated African themes into his work as a way of connecting Africans with African Americans. He would take inspiration from African masks and sculptures, along with cubism and art deco, to create a style uniquely his.

James Van Der Zee, “Garveyite Family, Harlem”, 1924, printed 1974. Gelatin silver print.

Since the invention of the camera, no historical era is complete without photographic documentation. For the Harlem Renaissance, one of its most prominent image keepers was James Van Der Zee. Both working in the studio and out, he captured the spirit and aspirations of many African Americans during this time. Around this time, the Black middle-class group was starting to grow. The photographs reflect this time, with many of Van Der Zee’s sitters dressed to the nines and standing next to their newly acquired car, suit, furniture, and so on. Van Der Zee’s carefully constructed photographs perfectly capture the excitement of this era.

Augusta Savagae, “Gamin”, ca. 1929. Painted plaster.

Last but not least is the artist Augusta Savage. She was a sculptor and art educator who moved to New York during the height of the Harlem Renaissance. Unfortunately, Savage almost didn’t become an artist. Like many women of her time, visual art, especially sculpting, was seen as un-feminine. Savage recounted how her father would beat her to stop her growing interest in the art. Thankfully, it didn’t work. Savage is most well known for her busts, one of which won her a fellowship to study in Paris. 

Like many great things, the Harlem Renaissance came to an end, mostly thanks to the Great Depression which forced a halt on many activities. However short this era may be, it planted the seed that would inspire a great many artists down the road. This era was the first time African Americans saw that they can be more than just slaves, laborers, or menial workers. They can create, inspire, and come up with great philosophies that last centuries. 

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