African-American Artists' Passionate Visions: Generations Rediscovering

By Sims, Lowery Stokes | American Visions, April-May 1994 | Go to article overview

African-American Artists' Passionate Visions: Generations Rediscovering


Sims, Lowery Stokes, American Visions


"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 visual art awards to cultivate a style predicated on African art and to strive to "develop an art devoid of academic or Caucasian influence, and to promote the African-American theme as a vital phase in the artist's expression of African-American life."

Palmer Hayden, whose figural style shows the stereotypical imagery that was then popular in advertising and decorative arts in the United States and Europe, received the first Harmon Foundation Gold Award for painting, in 1926. His work has always been suspect in certain African-American contexts because his delineation of facial features--emphasizing a stark contrast between skin color and exaggerated lips, and large, staring eyes--flaunted similarities with popular black stereo-types. But, in fact, Hayden was drawing on sources from popular art. The simplification that characterized the permutations of cubism found in 1920s modernist design--a convention also seen in the work of Jacob Lawrence--led some to confuse Hayden's work with folk art and its philosophical base. In Hayden's case the confusion was amplified by the fact that he had spent some time in the early 1920s with a circus troupe, for which he produced show advertisements in a direct, simplified "folk" style.

It was not only white agencies that called for the development of an African-American art style. Alain Locke, the author of The New Negro, which examined black achievement in the arts, also came to the conclusion that African-American artists "must evolve a racial style gradually and naturally."

There was one African-American artist who embraced the conventions of folk art and primitivism: William Henry Johnson, who attributed his talent to his racial background. His work has garnered attention for its forthright adoption of styles that have been characterized as "folk" but that are more precisely related to European primitivism as seen in German and Scandinavian expressionism in the first two decades of this century. …

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