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Studio Museum Focuses On African American Art, 1925-1945

The Studio Museum in the Harlem section of New York City is currently focusing on the years 1925-1945, the pivotal modernist period in African American Art. The exhibition, which runs through the end of March, opened as part of Black History Month activities in the United States.

The exhibition Challenge of the Modern: African-American Artists 1925-1945, explores the modernist concepts black artists addressed during that period, both in the United States and the Caribbean. It includes more than 100 paintings, sculptures and photographs.

Modernists like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso began redefining art in the late 19th century when they broke away from the figurative tradition of basing art on the landscape, the human figure and daily routines.

Lowery Stokes Sims, Director of the Studio Museum, says that black modernists were excluded from the mainstream for years, and effectively created their own modernism. "One of my gripes in 30 years of being an art historian is that I've always had to fit black artists into an external chronology, and what we're trying to do in this exhibition is take over the theoretical mode, and establish it within the black artistic community, and see where that leads you," he says.

Wellesley College Art History Professor Cheryl Finley says the work in Challenge of the Modern is underpinned by the geographic upheaval that was rocking the African American world at the time. "The great migration of African Americans,(flowed) mostly from the South up to northern centers. A period from, say, the teens, but also going through the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, black people moved to places like New York and Chicago, and even out west in search of new work," she says. "It was during a period when industries that would have been providing jobs for the war effort, had jobs that blacks could actually apply for."

Ms. Finley says the colorful, urban street and cafe scenes, painted by artists such as Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis and Archibald Motley, illustrate the joy with which black people embraced modern life.

Challenge of the Modern is also rife with references to African Tribal art. Edna Manley's wood relief sculpture, Diggers, for example, depicts stylized African men with mask-like faces swinging hammers.

Museum Director Lowery Stokes Sims says black artists of the period were heavily influenced by an essay by African American Philosopher, Alain Locke, entitled The Legacy of the Ancestral Arts. "He wasn't telling [black artists] to be a traditional African carver. These people were not primitive in that sense - a lot of these people had gone to the same school, were conversant in modernist conventions," he says. "So, for them to use media that's different from African art, which is primarily sculptural, in oil paintings and things, it's really interesting to see the different things they did."

Art historian Cheryl Finley says the new connections black artists were making to their roots in Africa were strong, but presented many of them with a unique challenge. "If this is a period of new identity formation, a period where modern identities are being shaped, there were some artist who felt a certain tension between, on the one hand, looking to an African past, yet trying to be part of an American future," she says. "You see that tension in some of the works that are exhibited in the exhibition."

Photographs in the exhibition help place the rest of the art in historical context. Viewers see images of singer/actor/activist Paul Robeson, the great jazz singer, Ella Fitzgerald, and Civil Rights leader Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. leading a street protest in Harlem in 1941, urging African Americans not to patronize stores where they are not allowed to work.

Professor Finley says one of the best things about the exhibition is the simple opportunity it offers to see so many rarely-exhibited works. "We teach this material from textbooks, from exhibition catalogues, from slides that have been used over and over again by art history departments, whose reproduction qualities get worse and worse over the years. So, to actually see Swing Low Sweet Chariot by Malvin Gray Johnson is just amazing to me," she says.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is showing an exhibition of African American art from the same period. Studio Museum Director Lowery Sims, who was at the Met for 30 years before coming to the Studio, says the two exhibitions are co-incidental, but understandable. "That period of 1925-1945 was one of such tremendous change for African Americans that I think you need two exhibitions to tell the entire story of how the artists captured those changes," he says. "It established African Americans in the modern world."

Ms. Sims says that when the Studio Museum was established in 1967, it faced little competition in acquiring the work of black artists. Now, she says, the Museum often has to fight with larger museums all over the world for that same work.