PCS Blog

Black American Art History

Posted by Allyson Walters | 28 October 2014

After seeing our production of Dreamgirls, Megan Harned was inspired to write this overview of black American art history. Megan is one of PCS’s fabulous patron services sales associates, but she also has a background in visual art history. The staging and lighting of Dreamgirls reminded her of some of the important black American artists she has studied. When she isn’t busy at PCS, Megan occasionally writes about visual arts for Oregon ArtsWatch


I’ll start, though the story begins far earlier, with Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859 – 1937) and The Banjo Lesson. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Tanner studied under Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Tanner traveled extensively during his long career, to the point where he exhibited at the Salon in Paris, the pinnacle of artistic exhibition in French society at the time. Through his representation of black life and culture, Tanner challenged pernicious stereotypes while upholding longstanding artistic tradition.
In The Banjo Lesson (1893), a child practices on an instrument nearly as tall as he is while sharing a chair with his father, who attentively looks on to observe his progress. Through his focus on an instrument with African roots and the transmission of knowledge and skill from one generation to another, Turner challenged stereotyped notions regarding the intrinsic musicality of black peoples and the loss of culture through the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This genre scene showed black American culture in a new light to many American audiences at the time. Its significance continues today for anyone laboring under the mistaken notion that bands and banjos, beloved by hipsters, have their roots in anything but that of African American art and culture.
Music and art flourished and took contemporary forms in African American communities during the 20th century. At one point during Dreamgirls the way the lighting cast the actors’ silhouettes larger-than-life as they moved across the stage brought to mind the dynamic compositions of Aaron Douglas (1899 – 1979). One of my favorite works of his is Song of the Towers, from his mural series “Aspects of Negro Life” (1934) for the New York Public Library at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Art and Artifacts Division.
Three figures move through geography and history as they move through the picture plane. On the bottom right, a man escapes southern sharecropping by climbing the center cog, representing the industrialized cities of the north. In the center, jazz saxophone in hand, he raises his arms and spirits towards liberty, as glimpsed through the soaring architectural cliff-faces.  On the bottom left-hand corner he is ultimately crushed by the mechanized machinations of city life.
Therefore Song of the Towers shows both the opportunities and risks to be had for people moving from the rural south to the urban north. Through a composition incorporating jazz motifs, African sculpture, and abstract geometric forms, Douglas created a recognizably modern style that synthesized the struggles, triumphs, and aesthetics of contemporary Black life. The style and content of his work continues to be relevant by contributing to a broader historical vantage point for our contemporary concerns over gentrification.
The movement of people during the Great Migration (1916-1970) continued to be an important subject for artists throughout the 20th century. No one is better known for his treatment of the subject as Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) whose The Migration Series is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Lawrence’s sixty panels of tempura (egg-based paint) on panel (heavy cardboard to be specific) with descriptive titles create a format capable of telling a multi-generational narrative. By expressing both the reasons for the exodus and the impact upon arrival, Lawrence’s series is comprehensive in its study.
Although the Negro was used to Lynching, he found this an opportune time for him to leave where one had occurred (1940-1). Upon hearing the news, a woman collapses against her kitchen table, which sets the table setting ajar; her slumped shoulders draw our gaze to her atrophied arm, which in resembling a tree branch is bodily violence made emotionally manifest. The contorted expressions, twisted limbs, and angular composition of One of the largest race riots occurred in East St. Louis (1940-1) is in the tradition of Guernica in its expression and denunciation of violence. Unfortunately, the ills these works address and express are still all too recognizable today. Another of the social causes of the migrants’ leaving was that at times they did not feel safe, or it was not the best thing to be found on the streets late at night. They were arrested on the slightest provocation (1940-1).
Lawrence’s use of repetitive motives and silhouetted figures create a visual language that captures the poverty, violence, and fear many people fled in pursuit of a life in Northern cities, while simultaneouslycreating a modernism to amplify contemporary African American voices who continue to fight for the freedoms long due to them.The Portland Museum of Art has several of the Harlem Series in its permanent collection. In these works the rich hues, vibrant sounds, intense spiritualism, and powerful culture of urban communities come alive during the period popularly known as the Harlem Renaissance.
Contemporary artists continue to address the living legacy of history in their work. Kara Walker uses the silhouette, drawn both from Black American art tradition and from Victorian tradition, to create narrative tableaus in black and white of the history of slavery. Recently, she created a vast sculptural installation in the Domino Sugar Factory titled A Subtlety:  Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the ­demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant. Filling the industrial space was a black mammy sphinx made of pure white sugar. Her attendants were basket-carrying molasses boys who by melting in the heat represented both the process and physical toll of growing, shipping, and refining sugar into its idealized form.  Here is an artistic representation of the true cost of labor not included in the price tags for the clothes, electronics, and food we purchase.
From this brief overview of black American art history, we see that black American artists’ contributions to American art history are technically skilled, emotionally powerful, historically minded, and attentive to visual developments in contemporary art practices. These works are documents of a lived history continuously attacked, sidelined, ignored and otherwise silenced for the comfort and ease of mind of white American mythology. There are many more visual artists than I could hope to cover here, but who also deserve your attention just as The Mountaintop, Intimate Apparel, Jitney, Showboat and additional theatrical productions in Portland deserve your patronage. This season, the enduring significance of the themes of music, movement, and memory to the African American community and American culture can be seen in our own production of Dreamgirls, as well as Portland Playhouse’s current production of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, through November 16. 

Comments (0)

There are no comments for this entry yet.

Join the conversation!

Portland Center Stage welcomes your comments and criticism.

We invite you to share your comments with us on our Facebook page.


For current and upcoming shows, please see our Season Calendar.

Sign up for the PCS email list.

Season Sponsors