African American Art – A Brief History
by October Gallery Staff
Rooted deep in the past, African-American Art presents a valuable insight into United States history and the continued unfolding of the country’s story. Rich in storytelling and craftsmanship, the beginnings of African-American Art have significantly influenced today’s current fine artists. Finding its start during slavery, early examples of the craft include ceramics, instruments and other artifacts dating back to the slave communities of the 17th century. Its onset was sparked by the talents of the early slaves who acquired their skills from the artisan culture of their original countries. Throughout the civil war and into the renown Harlem Renaissance, African American-Art expanded into the public’s consciousness and brilliantly made its mark on the art world.
African-American Art is a sweeping category that encompasses a broad range from quilters, portraitists, performance artists to contemporary sculptors and painters. Folk Art plays a critical role in the development of early African-American Art and provides a strong iconography that current artists reference. Folk art blends the traditions of craft while embedding a community’s experience, stories and history in the material. For textile artist, Harriet Powers, her intricate quilt work represented the folklore legends and bible stories that impacted her life. While only two of Powers’ quilts remain today, her work is considered to be the finest example of 19th century quilting from the American South.
Throughout the post-civil war era, more artists were being featured in museums or other exhibitions, however due to intense discrimination, American society placed major limitations on African-American Artists. Instead, many of them went abroad to Europe where they found acceptance in Paris or Munich. There, African-American artists had considerably more freedom to develop their art and expand into industry.
One of these artists, the renown Henry Ossawa Tanner, found success in Europe after difficult attempts at an art career in the states. Europe readily embraced Tanner and his potential, and he studied under respected French art instructors and began exhibiting at gallery shows. Tanner’s short return to the States produced his acclaimed work, The Banjo Lesson, in 1893. In the piece, Tanner is credited for presenting a visual that isn’t derived from stereotypical images of African-Americans in popular culture. Instead, Tanner focuses on a simple teacher-student moment experienced by a Grandfather and his grandson.
Tanner earned international recognition for his work, and it wasn’t long before the states experienced the Harlem Renaissance which brought forth a surge of historically significant artwork. During this creative era, the Harmon Foundation was established in 1922. It’s founder, William E. Harmon, started the project to patron emerging African-American Art and worked to achieve public and industry recognition for the artists. The painter, Sargent Johnson, received his start through the foundation and went on to be an influential figure in early modern art
African-American Art continued to transform and develop passed the Harlem Renaissance and into the 80’s with contemporary art. Arguably one of the most recognized African-American artists, Jean-Michele Basquiat, found instant fame in an industry that still lacked diversity. Known for his unmistakable, chaotic style, Basquiat’s work would frequently reference music legend, Charlie Parker and iconography relevant to African-American history. Like Basquiat, artist Kara Walker, shook up the industry with her powerful silhouette paintings that referenced slavery and the old Antebellum south. Today, African-American artists, like Walker, continue to make an impact with new technologies and ideas that are transforming visual culture.
Copyright: October Gallery