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Topics in Art

African American Art

The struggle to create art is never an easy one. The struggle to create art and thereby make a name for oneself is even more difficult. The struggle to create art and thereby make a name for oneself, as an African-American artist is an effort that would seem to be almost overwhelming. Yet, during this century, quite a surprising number have done just that. The list is impressive though some of these may not be household names, even in the black community. They include South Carolina artist, William Johnson, Pennsylvania artist Horace Pippin, Jacob Lawrence from New York City, Malvin Johnson from North Carolina, Lois Mailou Jones from Boston, and Romare Bearden, also from New York City.

The list is diverse. They span an entire generation, and in terms of style they often have little in common. What they do bear in common is a single-minded devotion to their African heritage in terms of theme and content of their work. Often too, the other side of the hyphen comes into play as these artist have drawn from the dark chronicles of their American slave heritage as well. Though their painting styles usually have some African influence, they just as often employ the Avant-garde styles such Synthetic Cubism, Abstraction, mixed-media collage, and even folk art. Historic African-American figures from the past are often a dominant theme. Jacob Lawrence, for instance, devoted most of his career to exploring the lives of American heroes such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas.

Given the nature of their background and subject matter, African-American art is often dark with elements of violence and anger. Malvin Johnson's work in dealing with Harlem street life has this quality. Pippin's work on the other hand is folksy, warm, simple, and optimistic. Lois Mailou Jones' work, while African in subject matter, has somewhat the look of upbeat Pop Art. Romare Bearden's work in mixed-media collage comes very close to cubist abstraction in his exploration of African-American Christian rituals. And in his handling of themes such as black migration from the farms to the cities during the early part of this century, William Johnson was strongly influenced by his studies in Paris and Picasso's Synthetic Cubism. Indeed, many of these artists, like their white counterparts, studied and thrived in Paris, in an atmosphere, often more accepting of their work than what they found when they returned to this country.

contributed by Lane, Jim

28 July 1998
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