African American Artists during the Twentieth Century

Photo Essay

Lois Mailou Jones, Les Fetiches (1938). Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY

The tensions between an art that refers to black people's social conditions and an art that transcends race and class politics are perhaps the primary hallmarks of African American art in the 20th century. Once the hope of emancipation and political enfranchisement gave way during and after Reconstruction to the reality of despair, segregation, and disfranchisement, many black artists left the United States to pursue their art in Europe, especially France and Italy. With the advent of the Harlem Renaissance and with the Great Migration of blacks to the north, themes of racial uplift and heroic depictions of African Americans became more and more prevalent and the political/apolitical debate began to center on the issue of racially representative art, particularly in response to Alain Locke's famous call for Negro artists to use African art as an aesthetic model. In the years after World War II, however, the debate shifted away from racial representations and Africanist aesthetics to discussions of social responsibility among black artists. Some artists, however, chose to break away from the debate by turning to abstract art and expressionism—though even these artists generally remained "within the fold" by continuing to use and rely on specifically African and African American motifs and themes. The Black Arts and Black Power movements of the 1960s brought politics and racial representation back to the fore. Since the 1980s, though, black art has been dominated by the postmodernist tenets of cultural relativity, art-as-performance, critical inquiries of art and society through one's work, and interrogations of identity, geography, and history. Using images and text, the art scholar Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw examine the art of fourteen African American men and women who made major contributions to art in the 20th century.

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