The 'Negro in Art Week': Defining the 'New Negro' through Art Exhibition

Article excerpt

... just as utopia signifies "no place," so does "New Negro" signify a "black person who lives at no place," and at no time. It is a bold and audacious act of language, signifying the will to power, to dare to recreate a race by renaming it, despite the dubiousness of the venture. (Gates 132)

Charles C. Dawson's design for the catalog cover to the Negro in a Art Week exhibition held at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1927 (see Fig. 1) does more than supply the what, where, and when of the exhibition. With a colossal Egyptian pharaoh looming over tuxedo-clad performers, the juxtaposition of ancestral motifs and contemporary sophisticates succinctly announces the arrival of the "New Negro." Not only was the exhibition an attempt boldly to reinvent the identity of the "New Negro," as literary historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., describes above, but also to assert the equality of the "New Negro" by demonstrating his skill in the fine arts.(1) Like its catalog cover, which portrays African American culture as both "primitive" and "civilized," the Negro in Art Week exhibition effectively summarizes the contradictions of the Harlem Renaissance in its quest to forge a new identity.

[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Within the ideological context of the Harlem Renaissance we can discover the aims of the exhibition held at the Art Institute. Reviews and responses, even the undertaking of the two-part exhibition itself, reveal confusion and resistance regarding the emergent "new" African American identity. The many problematic issues which arose during "Negro in Art Week"--such as those of patronage, artistic identity, and both the public's and critics' responses--reveal the inherently paradoxical nature of the exhibition of works by black artists in white institutions, and also reveal some surprising assumptions about what constitutes an art representative of the "New Negro." I will attempt to show how the Negro in Art Week exhibition came about, summarize briefly the context from which it emerged, and then explore more thoroughly the problems of defining a race through art exhibition, problems which still persist today. In short, this essay will explore how the Negro/n Art Week exhibition transported, along with the riches of the artistic and cultural awakening of the Harlem Renaissance, many of its controversies, thereby undermining its own objectives and good intentions.

Founded in 1876, the Chicago Woman's Club engaged in a variety of societal causes, among them public education, prison reform, and World War I relief.(2) The Club's well-intentioned attempt in 1927 to improve race relations through art exhibition offered ambiguous solutions to the "race problem." The week of exhibition and the events the Club sponsored from 16 November to 1 December 1927 consisted of both contemporary African American art, including forty paintings, three pieces of sculpture, various drawings, and examples of decorative art, and the Blondiau Collection of African Art from the Belgian Congo.

Aside from the list of artworks, little evidence exists to reconstruct the layout of the exhibition. Although wall labels apparently existed (their helpfulness was praised in a newspaper review [Owen]), both the content and authorship of these labels remain unknown. Writer Marie Johnson gave a detailed walking tour of the installation in her review of the exhibition, but she is more helpful in distinguishing which paintings were hung at the Art Institute and which at the Clubhouse than in conveying how and to what effect the paintings were displayed. Furthermore, except for the paintings reproduced in the catalog, few of the paintings have been documented or located in currently available sources.(3) Thus, we are left with incomplete evidence from which to reconstruct a picture of the event. The catalog and the scrapbook assembled and preserved by the Chicago Woman's Club, and now in the Chicago Historical Society's Archive, provide the most substantial clues. …