The Virgin Martyr St. Cecilia by Kehinde Wiley

The Virgin Martyr St. Cecilia by Kehinde Wiley


“At its best, what art does is, it points to who we [are] as human beings and what we as human beings value. And if Black Lives Matter, they deserve to be in paintings.” –Kehinde Wiley


From the charged photograph of a woman defying police during a Black Lives Matter protest to the refined criticism of Kehinde Wiley’s work in the Met, the African American community has galvanized a new era of civil rights activism by retelling the black narrative on black terms. Much like the Harlem Renaissance influenced political movements during the early 20th century, today’s fight for racial equality is playing out in the artistic realm—a black renaissance is reemerging. Building upon a legacy of artistic dissent, the many voices of this movement are demanding that issues surrounding modern black oppression receive a closer look.  

In American history, the arts are one of the few domains where the African American community has exercised complete control over the public’s perception of black identity. The stories told within these works are synonymous to those written upon a protest sign; they engage the audience by asserting a physical, political, and cultural presence. As Wiley puts it when referring to his mug shot series, “I will be seen the way I choose to be seen.” African American art is not a passive summary of the politics of racial inequality; the art is an active combatant.


Starting with the Harlem Renaissance, black storytellers began using the emotive power of art as a tool to define black identity for an interracial audience. Caught in the wind of a cultural movement that spread as far as Paris and the Caribbean, the New Negro Renaissance, as it was called, was the beginning of a campaign “against segregation through better representation of black people in and through art,” explained University of Nebraska-Lincoln Professor Maureen Honey in an interview with the HPR. “Artists today are aware of their predecessors and appreciative of their pioneer efforts and successes in terms of breaking through a white establishment.”  

A century later, the legacy of this period endures. One can still hear the sleek sounds of Duke Ellington complement the words of Claude McKay. The work of artists participating in the Harlem Renaissance was not simply an act of self expression; it was a proclamation, a declaration of the growing collective black consciousness that is epitomized in seminal paintings like Jacob Lawrence’s “The Migration Series.”

“The Migration Series” is not a single painting, but an epic saga of 60 paintings that tell the story of the exodus of African American people from the rural South to the industrial North over the course of the 20th century. This piece, which depicts the greatest geographic movement of people of African descent since the height of the slave trade, captures, too, the free movement of African Americans towards their ambitions for the first time in American history.  

The Great Migration ushers in a new era. Just as the exodus of Moses and the Israelites was a critical stage in the formation of Jewish culture, the Great Migration marked the beginning of the modern African American community. The mass movement of people of color became part of the heroic folklore of a new, emancipated class.

The artist Kerry James Marshall highlights the importance of such cultural narratives: “For black people in the western hemisphere, if you can’t generate a mythology that creates models of heroism and power out of the mythology that you had, then that means … the mythology you had was not only feeble and weak, but that you are ultimately a powerless people.”

Great historical paintings unify people through the glorification of a shared past. Jacob Lawrence’s piece doesn’t just record a demographic shift; the work transforms the Great Migration into a cultural touchstone. As a result of his effort and those of others, the Harlem Renaissance led the urban black community to coalesce around a set of shared experiences, both past and present.  


The Harlem Renaissance produced art from a black perspective but it is not solely a black story. The work of Harlem artists (Harlem here used as a cultural marker rather than a geographic one) is a tale of urbanization; of a post-war generation; of a modernizing world. The stories of the Harlem Renaissance are stories of a collective human experience albeit told through a novel perspective: the “American Negro,” whose voice was never solicited until he raised it himself.

As explained by Harvard professor Sarah Lewis in an interview with the New York Times, “When we celebrate black culture, we are celebrating American culture.” The legacy of this shared culture continues. Black, white, brown, and yellow, American history is a story that encompasses both the oppressed and the oppressor.  

In modern times, the arts have risen again to craft the black identity. Today, artists such as Marshall, Wiley, and Kara Walker build upon the precedent of Lawrence by chronicling the history of the African American community as they see it. However, now, the aim is different. Instead of working to codify the “new negro,” contemporary artists are highlighting the pluralism of black identity. Through conversation with the past, today’s art scene offers a diverse interpretation of the future.


“You can’t be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and grow up in South Central [Los Angeles] near the Black Panthers headquarters, and not feel like you’ve got some kind of social responsibility. You can’t move to Watts in 1963 and not speak about it.”

On the front lines of this renaissance is Marshall, an artist whose 35-year career has led him from Birmingham to the steps of the Met. Life is rich within the bounds of his canvas. With great care and technique, he paints black figures into narratives of daily life; the presence of blackness is used as a tool to dignify each setting. With skin glowing a dark charcoal, the figures embrace color at its physical extreme. Marshall stands at the forefront of a cadre of contemporary artists who, in his own words, have taken hold of “the first freedom … to be in possession of yourself.”


“Do You Like Creme in Your Coffee and Chocolate in Your Milk?”

Kara Walker asks from behind the title of one of her works. A prolific artist and a MacArthur genius, Walker has spent the last two decades creating art that confronts the trite narratives of race that dominate the media. As stated by Walker, she challenges her audience to see black identity through a lens without a unified dialogue by giving the viewer “what you want: negative images of white people, positive images of blacks.” Her American story is still one of oppressed and oppressor, but those titles don’t come with a skin color. Racism is a burden for which we all must take the blame. Through black and white papercuts, her most well-known medium, Walker engulfs the viewer into a perverse tale of distorted antebellum bliss, where her use of coarse black caricatures shock the viewer into considering the inhumanity cloaked by notions of race.  


“I know what it feels like to walk through the streets … this dissonance between the world that you know, and then what you mean as a symbol in public, that strange, uncanny feeling of having to adjust for … this double consciousness.”

Few people have ever had the power to rewrite history like Wiley. His art returns to Harlem, where the men in his portraits are picked off the city streets and then placed into famous historical works, such as “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” by Jacques-Louis David. Chosen for encapsulating the sort of urban bravado that comes with the proud display of new basketball shoes and brand labels, these men assume “the poses of colonial masters, the former bosses of the Old World” according to Wiley. The new portraits don’t simply feature black men impersonating Napoleon and other white elites; Wiley’s muses, dressed in their everyday clothing, physically replace them as the glorified subject matter. Through his remastered classics, Wiley’s work seeks to “position young black men within the field of power.”   

These artists are not alone in their work; countless others accompany them to form the voice of the black artistic community. Furthermore, the modern renaissance is not about the quantity of images that are created, but, more importantly, about the weight of those images upon the public. In conversation with the HPR at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, artist Jeff Koons notes “the real value [of art] is how it makes you feel, how it makes you feel a sense of potential.” Just as artists during the Harlem Renaissance used their work as a tool for exploring what it meant to be a “New Negro” in a time of great transition, the work of contemporary artists can be seen as a reassertion of black potential amidst the racial tumult that has marked the last few decades. This collective body takes many different forms—from papercut, to written word, to figurative painting—but, through this pluralist view, we gather a synergistic image of the black body and its connotations.

Art is one of the few mediums where black Americans exercise autonomy over their own culture. The entrance of white artists, not only into the dialogue of black issues but into the language of black artists, violates this intimate space and—to borrow a term from Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation—raises complaints over the “fetishization” of black imagery. The most recent example of this can be seen at the Whitney Biennial, a contemporary art exhibition at New York City’s Whitney Museum of American Art. Currently on display is, a white artist, Dana Schutz’s interpretation of the open casket photograph of Emmett Till, a 14 year old boy from Mississippi who was brutally murdered in 1955 in retaliation for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The painting is causing an uproar. As proclaimed by Hannah Black, an artist of color, “The subject matter is not Schutz’s.” However, not everyone agrees. Schutz counters, “art can be a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection. I don’t believe that people can ever really know what it is like to be someone else (I will never know the fear that black parents may have) but neither are we all completely unknowable.”  


Nearly a century has elapsed since the Harlem Renaissance. Yet the issue of normalizing the “black experience,” in its many derivations, continues. Whether through the codification of a shared history, protest art, or the dignification of the modern life, art allows blackness to color the questions, “Who am I? What is the world that I inhabit? Where do I fit into it?” The work of 21st century black artists to address these questions has been critical in defining the African American experience to the public eye. When asked about the driving force behind his career, Marshall spoke of the unacceptable paucity of such voices.

“When most people go to a big museum like the Louvre, it reaffirms their idea of what real art is supposed to look like. And if you keep going to the Louvre and Tate Britain and you don’t see black people in those pictures, then you don’t think black people belong in those kind of pictures, which belong in a place like that.”

Conversely, when the evening news brings only images of black violence and poverty, that becomes the space where black people belong. Segregation may no longer be written, but, visually, it is still institutionalized. The last hundred years have been marked by a conscious effort to provide equitable treatment of black history and identity. The work being produced in the current renaissance may be centered around the fine arts community, but black images—images that show the African American community as dignified and as multifaceted—don’t just belong in the Louvre. They belong in classrooms, in homes. Black images, like black people, belong everywhere.  


Image Source: Kehinde Wiley Studio Inc., Wikimedia Commons 

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