"The relationship between African-American |high' art and |folk' art has always been tantalizingly close," declares Lowery Stokes Sims, an associate curator Of 20th-century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Here, she seeks to illuminate that relationship by providing a brief history of the evolution of the African-American folk artist. In doing so, she places her praise of the exhibition "Passionate Visions of the American South: Self-Taught Artists From 1940 to the Present" in context. "This project," she says, "breaks some long-standing, unspoken taboos and conspires against claims of exclusivity or cultural hegemony on the part of any group."
During the 18th and 19th centuries, discussions about African-American creativity mainly concerned whether African Americans were capable--both intellectually and spiritually--of embarking on careers in the "fine" arts. Through the efforts of artists such as Robert Duncanson, Edmonia Lewis, Edward Bannister and Henry Tanner--to name only a few--this question was laid to rest. By the 1920s African Americans could boast of a solid history of achievement within the stylistic currents of the art establishments of America and Europe, and now they were faced with decisions about what and how they would paint.
While 19th-century artists had produced work that spoke only occasionally to the black condition, and then only in the most "appropriate" of high-art mannerisms, African-American artists in the 20th century began to consider why they had forsaken their African roots to produce copies of the work of their white counterparts. After being haunted by doubts of their ability to assimilate, they were now being urged to return to the cultural roots that white society had previously reviled and defiled--all because European and Euro-American art circles had finally recognized the art of Africa.
The Harmon Foundation, a white agency formed in 1922 to aid black artists, launched some of the first moves in this direction. In the late 1920s the foundation encouraged African-American recipients of its …