An assemblage of works by more than 40 black artists, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibit "African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond" serves as a poignant and altogether stellar survey of contemporary works by 20th-century African-American artists. What makes the show truly special, says senior curator Virginia Mecklenburg, are the shared connections between the artists that are so strongly evident. “You almost see through the artworks this whole philosophy—questions and also responses to what it means to be African American as it evolves from the Harlem Renaissance and into further generations, all the way to the 1980s,” she says. “You realize how connected so many of these artists are to certain ideas.”
Included in the show, which runs through September 3, are works by Sam Gilliam and Alma Thomas, members of the Washington Color School. Thomas, a retired DC public school teacher who passed away in 1978, became renowned later in life for her stunning abstract paintings, many of them inspired by visits to the US Botanic Garden and National Arboretum. The tiny strokes of acrylic that make up a series of stripes in her 1968 work Light BlueNursery exude a sense of peace, but also discipline and dedication to a task.
Also on display are more provocative paintings by artists such as Jacob Lawrence. In his work Bar and Grill (pictured above), the artist depicts what appears to be a pedestrian vignette: drinkers gathered around a bar in a New Orleans saloon. Mecklenburg says a close look at the work reveals a seething that reflects Lawrence’s disgust with Jim Crow legislation and overt racism in the 1940s South: There’s a wall down the middle of the room, and a fan on the white side of the bar, but none to cool the black patrons. “It’s not a painting of a raised fist, but it’s clear that there is a point to the piece,” she says.
Renée Ater, associate professor of art history and archeology at the University of Maryland and a scholar of 19th- and 20th-century American art who recently delivered a public lecture on the show’s works, describes the exhibit as a mosaic as diverse as the African-American experience. “This show is a way of highlighting diversity, [and one] that will draw in diverse communities.” Ater adds that the exhibition’s importance lies in its ability to act as a reflection. “There are people who are really hungry to see works by African- Americans. We want to see ourselves represented in history and in culture, and in museums.”
"African American Art" runs through September 3 at the American Art Museum, Eighth and F Streets NW, 202-633-7970