Represent: 200 years of African American Art reviewed

Represent: 200 years of African American Art. Now through April 5, 2015 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Represent takes the patron through the 19th and 20th centuries of the African American experience as illustrated mainly by artists centered in Philadelphia and New York.  The pieces in this collection are drawn from the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and arranged conveniently and chronologically in a gallery for your enjoyment.  The exhibit tells a story of isolation and assimilation and the works demonstrate parallel cultures which are both intertwined and separate.  The pieces featured in the show range a diverse range of perspectives and styles.  The exhibit includes works from painters, artisans, sculptors, crafters, and photographers encompassing everything from a practical storage vessel to activist and abstract art.

As you enter the gallery you are greeted by a very moving black and white portrait of a young Martin Luther King by John Woodrow Wilson in 1988.  The portrait is charcoal on cream wove paper. The stark image with downcast black eyes in bold black and white contrast is highly evocative.  One's thoughts turn to the history of Africans in America; the triumphs and the tragedies.  This is a perfect welcome into the exhibit.

The exhibit begins with cut paper profiles by Moses Williams, a former slave of the famous Peale family in Philadelphia.  Born around 1775, he was trained to work in the Peale's museum where he learned physiognotrace; a technique able to produce fast and cheap portraits of the sitter which were made of black cut paper and always in silhouette. Similar in appearance to cameos, they were a novelty for the aristocracy.  He used this machine, which was a precursor to modern photography, to create portrait profiles and earned a steady income from the work after he gained his freedom in 1802. He became a part of one of the largest free black communities in the country at that time.

A storage jar by David Drake, also known as Drake the Potter is on display.  Drake was a master potter and poet from Edgefield, South Carolina who created large storage jars out of clay.  The jar on display is dated May 3, 1859 and has an inscription of one of the artist's poems as well as his signature.

“The Annunciation” by Henry Owassa Tanner, 1898 is a large painting of the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she will bear the Son of God. Mary is shown as an adolescent dressed in Middle Eastern peasant clothing, without a halo or other holy attributes. A shaft of light represents the angel Gabriel. It was acquired by Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1899 and was his first work to enter an American museum. Also on display is Portrait of the Artist's Mother, 1897. This dignified portrait of Sarah Tanner is clearly a tribute to this remarkable woman and inspired by the Whistler's Mother portrait by James McNeill Whistler.  Henry was raised in Philadelphia and studied at The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art.  This work was painted in Paris after Tanner returned from a trip to Egypt and Palestine.

Aaron Douglass's "Birds in Flight" was painted in Harlem in 1927 during the early Harlem Renaissance.  This painting looks very similar to Pablo Picasso's Ma Jolie which was painted around 1912.   It is small and looks like it was painted in the cubist style.  At first glance, this painting looks to be abstract.  The painting shapes and patterns in shades of red, orange, brown, green, and blue, and diagonal lines. There are three looming smokestacks in the upper right, suggesting an urban scene as well as flapping wings, eyes, and round heads throughout the picture. Douglass was inspired by many art forms including African sculpture and modern art and design. Douglass made this painting just two years after he moved from Kansas to New York City.     He became a central figure in the neighborhood of Harlem during this time of important cultural awakening. He made illustrations and covers for books by authors such as Alain Locke and Langston Hughes. He also painted large public murals, such as his famous Aspects of Negro Life on the walls of the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library.  He established the art department at Fisk University, a historically black university in Nashville, Tennessee.

William Henry Johnson's “Blind Singer” was painted around 1939-1940. It is reminiscent of, but possibly predating, the cut outs by Henri Matisse which were produced in the early 1940's.  This lively image contains two musicians facing us directly and standing close together singing, and playing the guitar and a tambourine. The man and woman are wearing colorful clothing: a yellow hat with a blue band, a red tie, orange and blue jackets, and green shoes.   It conveys the fashion, music, and dance that would he would have seen and experienced in his neighborhood of Harlem. William moved to New York City from rural South Carolina at age seventeen during the Great Migration when large numbers of African Americans left the south. He enrolled in painting and drawing classes at the prestigious National Academy of Design. Once finished with his studies in the U.S., he traveled to Europe and launched his artistic career.  After his return to New York in 1938 he taught at the Harlem Community Art Center.

Horace Pippin's “Mr. Prejudice”, 1943, is a small but moving painting with a powerful message about Pippin's experiences of discrimination and segregation after returning from World War One.  The characters stand on opposing sides of a large V which is being hammered by a grim faced white man.  The V stands for victory abroad. On the right side is a hooded Ku Klux Klan member standing under a dark cloud. Other characters under the Klansman include a man with a noose. Following are other men in various war related professions; the whites on one side and the blacks on the other.   Horace Pippin is also portrayed with his right arm that was injured in battle hanging at his side. Also “The End of the War: Starting Home”, painted in the early 1930's.  It depicts black soldiers in France during World War One fighting and capturing German soldiers in a war scene.  These paintings are demonstrative of Pippin's feelings about war and postwar experiences of discrimination, segregation prejudice and injustice.  Horace Pippin was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania.  He fought in World War One in France where he served with a famous African American regiment named the Harlem Hellfighters.  He was shot in the right shoulder toward the end of the war and taught himself to paint despite his disability.

Jacob Lawrence 1917 - 2000  “The Libraries Are Appreciated”, 1943 Is a slice of life painting where three people sit a table in the 124th Street branch of the New York Public Library. They are engrossed in their reading and surrounded by brightly colored books that line the shelves behind them.  This is the twenty eighth painting out of sixty in the Harlem Series which illustrate various scenes of daily life in Harlem using bold shapes, vivid colors and patterns.   He was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey and moved to Harlem with his family at age thirteen.  He studied art in New York first at an after school program and later at the American Artists School.  He and his wife moved to the West Coast in the 1970's where he taught art at the University of Washington.

Gordon Parks 1912 - 2006 Untitled (Man in Hat Holding Little Girl) 1950 is a black and white photograph where a dignified looking older man holds a young girl in his arms while standing in a crowd of humbly dressed African Americans. He is wearing a hat which, illuminated by the sun, has a halo-like ring around the rim. The people in the background are out of focus, but we see every detail of his face.  The people, who are all of various ages and humbly dressed, appear to be watching an event. This picture was taken around 1950, when he worked as a photojournalist for Life magazine.  His photographs document the lives of African Americans with a Norman Rockwell like capturing of the essence of the lives of his subjects. He also documented the lives of famous celebrities and politicians of his time. Parks s photographs are powerfully engaging drawing the viewer into the subject and evoking emotion.  Gordon Parks was born in Kansas.  He moved to Harlem after having already working for the Farm Security Administration and working as a freelance photographer.  Life magazine hired him in the 1940's making him the magazines first African American staff photographer.  Well known for his photography, he was also an accomplished filmmaker, writer, poet and composer.

Elizabeth Catlett 1915 - 2012 “Mother and Child” Terracotta sculpture 1956.  This is a piece showing a woman sitting, holding a young child. She sits erect but appears calm and strong. Her feet are firmly planted and her lap provides a stable comfortable seat for the child. The sculpture depicts a universal representation of motherhood.  Mother and Child was sculpted while the artist was living in Mexico City.  It is one of many versions some of which are made from mahogany or pecan wood. Elizabeth Catlett used her art to raise social consciousness. She was trained at Howard University and the University of Iowa and taught art in New York City as well as New Orleans.

Barkley L. Hendricks 1945.  "Miss T" painted in 1969, is a portrait of a woman fashionably dressed black woman wearing a black pantsuit against a white background and has her hands placed behind her back.  She looks cool and confident in her bell bottom pants, aviator glasses and afro hairstyle.   This painting reflects the "Black is Beautiful" attitude of the late 1960's.  Barkley Hendricks is known for capturing images of stylish, confident, everyday people.  He attempted to fill what he saw as a void of black figures in the major museums of European and American art.  Hendricks was born and raised in North Philadelphia.  He studied at Yale and The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.  He eventually became a professor at Connecticut College.

There is much more to see in this exhibit. In addition to the pieces mentioned, there are also pieces from other artists including but not limited to; Martin Puryear "Old Mole" Red Cedar 1985 Sculpture, Faith Ringgold "Tar Beach 2" Quilt 1990, Carrie Mae Weems Photography "Kitchen Table", as well as work by Lorna Simpson and Jerry Pinkney.   It is worth a visit.