Artist Allan Rohan Crite: Elder Statesmen of African American Art

By Mellin, Barbara Rizza | The New Crisis, September/October 1999 | Go to article overview

Artist Allan Rohan Crite: Elder Statesmen of African American Art


Mellin, Barbara Rizza, The New Crisis


The alert and prolific artist moves slowly but defiberately up the four flights of stairs that lead to his studio. His purpose, as it has always been, is to create art that captures the everyday world of African Americans and to chronicle their heritage. It is clear that his artwork energizes Allan Rohan Crite, 89, as he speaks of his latest project, which would be daunting in scope and execution even for a younger man.

At his home/studio on Columbus Avenue in the South End of Boston, Crite (pronounced Cryt) is currently creating a series of pieces that detail the African-American experience in terms of migration from Africa. Through careful research that includes the study of history, architecture, clothing and customs of various cultures, he is creating a large, pictorial fold-out that records the chronology of black emigrations from Africa to China, Korea, Japan, other Asian countries, and especially Latin America, since, according to this artist/historian, "the bulk of Africans (who immigrated to the new world) went to Latin America."

The grandson of a slave, Crite observes that slavery had a major influence on European and American history from the 1500s to the 1800s. He comments that, "the rest of the world (with the exception of Haiti) abolished slavery by acts of parliament or governmental decree. But in the United States it took an act of war," contributing, he believes, to the racial tensions that still exist in the U.S. The collection at the Crite House Museum, which doubles as his home and studio, reflects the diverse media in which he has worked. Hand-tooled brass panels that once adorned a monastery have been returned to their originator and are now on display. The gridded sketch for a 45-foot by 45-foot mural created in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1950, hangs among countless pencil sketches, lithographs and brush-and-ink drawings.

My personal favorite work of his art is the oil painting of his mother done in 1937. Beautifully rendered in broad, flat areas of color, the composition is reminiscent of Edward Hopper's work. Where Hopper created isolation, however, Crite has painted connection-connection with the artist and with the community. The pensive, young woman gazes out the window as neighbors walk below. The viewer is left to determine the thoughts behind her gaze. is she lost in reverie, contemplating a poem perhaps, or is she wondering what will become of her artistic son?

Crite credits his mother as one of two major influences in his decision to become an artist. While she wrote poetry, this mother from Boston's Columbus Avenue gave art supplies to her young son Allan and encouraged him to draw. A few year's later, an elementary school teacher named Miss Brady recognized the boy's talents and suggested he attend the Children's Art School, offered at that time by the Museum of Fine Arts (MEN) in Boston. With the encouragement of these two women, Allan Crite went on to receive a scholarship in 1929 to the MFA School, where he studied for the next six years. In 1936, he took his first art job as an illustrator for the Boston Ship Yard.

He would eventually receive an academic degree from Harvard University and honorary doctorate degrees from numerous other colleges. He has also, authored several books. His artwork now hangs in such places as New York's Museum of Modern Art; the Corcoran Gallery; the National Cathedral; the Smithsonian Institute; Chicago's Art Institute; Boston's Athenaeum, a member's only library; the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, and the Museum of Fine Arts.

Allan Crite groups his artwork into three basic categories: illustrations of the Negro spirituals; religious themes that emphasize the non-European aspects of the Bible; and renderings of the Negro experience, which he refers to as "neighborhood paintings. …

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