African American Art in the 20th Century

National Tour

Dubuque Museum of Art
in Dubuque, Iowa
Cornell Fine Arts Museum
in Winter Park, Florida
The Westmoreland Museum of American Art
in Greensburg, Pennsylvania
Wichita Art Museum
in Wichita, Kansas
Hudson River Museum
in Yonkers, New York
Media - 1995.22.1 - SAAM-1995.22.1_1 - 65784

Frederick Brown, John Henry, 1979, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is home to one of the most significant collections of African American art in the world. In 2019, SAAM organized the exhibition African American Art in the 20th Century that is traveling to several cities across the United States.

This exhibition presents nearly 50 paintings and sculptures by 32 African American artists from SAAM’s collection. These artists came to prominence during the period bracketed by the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights movement. The means of these artists varied — from modern abstraction to stained color to the postmodern assemblage of found objects — and their subjects are diverse. Benny Andrews, Ellis Wilson and William H. Johnson speak to the dignity and resilience of people who work the land. Jacob Lawrence 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 celebrate jazz musicians. Sam Gilliam, Felrath Hines and Alma Thomas conducted innovative experiments with color and form.

The featured artworks were created at significant social and political moments in America. Words of Howard University philosophy professor Alain Locke, novelist James Baldwin, Civil Rights leader Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and their contemporaries provided insight and inspiration. 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.

Exhibition Catalogue

African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, The Civil Rights Movement, and Beyond

African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond offers a rich vision of twentieth-century visual culture. An essay by Richard Powell sets the stage: his analyses of works by Sargent Johnson, Renée Stout, Eldzier Cortor, and Alma Thomas give the reader a rubric for considering other works that range from the Harlem Renaissance to the decades beyond the civil rights era, a period that saw tremendous social and political change. The forty-three artists included here worked in every style current during those decades, from documentary realism to abstraction, from expressionism to postmodern assemblage. They consistently touch universal themes, but they also evoke specific aspects of the African American experience—the African Diaspora, jazz, and the persistent power of religion.

Credits

African American Art in the 20th Century is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The C.F. Foundation in Atlanta supports the museum’s traveling exhibition program, Treasures to Go. The William R. Kenan Jr. Endowment Fund provided financial support.