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African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond

April 27, 2012 – September 3, 2012

Image for African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond

Jacob Lawrence, Bar and Grill, 1941, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Henry Ward Ranger through the National Academy of Design

African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond presents a selection of paintings, sculpture, prints, and photographs by forty-three black artists who explored the African American experience from the Harlem Renaissance through the Civil Rights era and the decades beyond, which saw tremendous social and political changes. In response, these artists created an image of America that recognizes individuals and community and acknowledges the role of art in celebrating the multivalent nature of American society.

The artworks in the exhibition lay out a vision of America from an African American viewpoint. These artists embrace many universal themes and also evoke specific aspects of the African American experience—the African Diaspora, jazz, and the persistent power of religion.

The artists work in styles as varied as documentary realism, abstraction, and postmodern assemblage of found objects to address a diverse array of subjects. Robert McNeill, Richmond Barthé, and Benny Andrews speak to the dignity and resilience of people who work the land. Jacob Lawrence, Roy DeCarava, and Thornton Dial, Sr. acknowledge the struggle for economic and civil rights. Sargent Johnson, Loïs Mailou Jones, and Melvin Edwards address the heritage of Africa, and images by Romare Bearden recast Christian themes in terms of black experience. James Porter and Alma Thomas explore beauty in the natural world.

All 100 artworks in the exhibition are drawn entirely from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s rich collection of African American art. More than half of the featured works, including paintings by Benny Andrews, Jacob Lawrence, and Loïs Mailou Jones, and photographs by Roy DeCarava, Gordon Parks, Roland Freeman, and Marilyn Nance, are being exhibited by the museum for the first time, and ten works are recent acquisitions. The exhibition includes fifty-four photographs, which are incorporated into the display while also organizing the exhibition thematically. Individual object labels connect the artists and their works with the artistic, social, and contextual factors that shaped their creation. The exhibition is organized by Virginia Mecklenburg, chief curator.

Public Programs
April 27, 2012, Renée Ater, Insight and Inspiration for 20th Century African American Art
June 6, 2012 at 5:30 p.m., Conservation of Our Collection: African American Art
June 16, 2012 from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Juneteenth Family Day
June 22, 2012 at 7 p.m., Black Lens: African American Photographers with Tony Gleaton, Earlie Hudnall Jr., and Marilyn Nance
August 1, 2012 at 7 p.m., Curator Talk with Virginia Mecklenburg
August 14, 2012 at 6 p.m., Facing Forward Looking Back Gallery Talk with Maricia Battle

The exhibition is accompanied by a beautifully illustrated catalogue, written by distinguished scholar Richard J. Powell, the John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art and Art History at Duke University. The book also includes entries about each artist by Virginia Mecklenburg; Theresa Slowik, the museum’s chief of publications; and Maricia Battle, curator in the prints and drawings division at the Library of Congress. The catalogue, co-published by the museum with Skira Rizzoli in New York, is available for purchase ($60 hardcover, $40 softcover) in the museum store, in our online shop, and at bookstores nationwide.

In the News
The Washington Post, May 10, 2012, “American Art Museum gives a peek at vast collection of African American art” by Danielle O’Steen
NPR, Morning Edition, May 3, 2012, “Colorful Visions at African American Art Exhibit” by Susan Stamberg
Washingtonian, May 3, 2012, “A new show reveals the Smithsonian’s unparalleled collection of work by African-American artists” by Sophie Gilbert
Washington City Paper, April 30, 2012, “Reviewed: ‘African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond’” by Louis Jacobson
Express, April 26, 2012, “Hues of History” by Mark Jenkins

Educational Website
Oh Freedom! Teaching African American Civil Rights through American Art at the Smithsonian is an educational website that offers insights into the civil rights movement through the lens of Smithsonian collections. Drawing connections among art, history, and social change, Oh Freedom! Provides educators with tools to help students re-imagine and reinterpret the long struggle for civil rights, justice, and equality.

Behind the Scenes with Eye Level
Go behind the scenes with the museum’s conservators to see the varied processes and techniques they use to prepare artworks for exhibition. The museum’s blog Eye Level will feature a monthly series on treatments performed in our Lunder Conservation Center to ready objects on display in the exhibition. Highlighted artworks include Frederick Eversley’s Untitled, Richard Hunt’s Study for Richmond Cycle, Loïs Mailou Jones’ Moon Masque, John Scott’s Thornbush Blues Totem, and Renée Stout’s The Colonel’s Cabinet.
Heat, August 21, 2012
Conservation: Treating Frederick Eversley's Sculpture, August 2, 2012
Preparing for African American Art: A Conversation with Renée Stout, July 19, 2012
Preparing for African American Art: Conserving a Work by Richard Hunt, June 21, 2012
Preparing for African American Art: Conserving a Work By John Scott, Part 3, May 31, 2012
Behind the Scenes: Preparing an Artwork for Exhibition, May 24, 2012
No Crystal Stair: African American Art, May 15, 2012
Open Now: African American Art, April 27, 2012
Preparing for African American Art: Conserving a Work By John Scott, Part 2, April 17, 2012
Preparing for African American Art: Conserving a Work By John Scott, Part 1, April 4, 2012
Behind the Scenes: The Moving of a Sculpture, February 22, 2012

National Tour
African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond is traveling to seven museums in the United States after closing at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Muscarelle Museum of Art at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia (September 28, 2012–January 6, 2013)
Mennello Museum of American Art in Orlando, Florida (February 1, 2013–April 28, 2013)
Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts (June 1, 2013–September 2, 2013)
Albuquerque Museum of Art in Albuquerque, New Mexico (September 29, 2013–January 19, 2014)
Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, Tennessee (February 14, 2014–May 25, 2014)
Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California (June 28, 2014–September 21, 2014)

African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from Alston & Bird; Amherst Holdings, LLC; Diane and Norman Bernstein Foundation; Larry Irving and Leslie Wiley; the William R. Kenan, Jr. Endowment Fund; Clarence Otis and Jacqui Bradley; and PEPCO. The C.F. Foundation in Atlanta supports the museum's traveling exhibition program, Treasures to Go.