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.\
In 2012, SAAM published a book titled African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond that celebrates modern and contemporary artworks in its collection by African American artists. The book, co-published with Skira Rizzoli in New York, is written by Richard J. Powell, the John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art and Art History at Duke University; and Virginia Mecklenburg, chief curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum; with contributions from Maricia Battle, curator in the prints and drawings division at the Library of Congress. It is available for $60 ($39.95 softcover) online.
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.