African American Art: Jacob Lawrence

The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online), June 2016 | Go to article overview

African American Art: Jacob Lawrence


In Street to Mbari, (tempera over graphite on wove paper) Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) captures the flurry of a busy outdoor market in Nigeria. Shops line either side of the street while a maze of vendors awaiting discovery fills the distance. The viewer becomes part of the scene amidst a crowd of people, young and old, buying and selling. One can almost hear babies crying, chickens squawking, and people chattering as they discuss fabrics and produce. A cacophony of primary colors heightens the sense of commotion. Rolls of fabric show off different patterns and color combinations. Strips of corrugated iron in varying sizes and colors form the shops' roofs and create a visual rhythm across the top of the painting.

Lawrence first studied African art as a young man in New York during the Harlem Renaissance. In 1962 he traveled to Nigeria on an invitation to exhibit his work. In describing the trip, he said, "I became so excited then by all the new visual forms I found in Nigeria-unusual color combinations, textures, shapes, and the dramatic effect of light-that I felt an overwhelming desire to come back as soon as possible to steep myself in Nigerian culture so that my paintings, if I'm fortunate, might show the influence of the great African artistic tradition." It was during a second trip there in 1964 that Lawrence completed Street to Mbari.

Daybreak-A Time to Rest (tempera on hardboard) by Jacob Lawrence is one in a series of panel paintings that tell the story of Harriet Tubman (c. 1820-1913), the famed African-American woman who freed the enslaved using a fragile network of safe houses called the Underground Railroad. This abstracted image emphasizes Tubman's bravery in the face of constant danger. Lying on the hard ground beside a couple and their baby, she holds a rifle. Her face, pointing upward to the sky, occupies the near center of the canvas, her "body" surrounded by purple. Tubman's enormous feet, grossly out of proportion, become the focal point of the work. The lines delineating her toes and muscles look like carvings in a rock, as if to emphasize the arduous journeys she has made. Reeds in the foreground frame the prone runaways. Three insects (walking stick, beetle, and ant) are signs of activity at daybreak.

The Capture, 1987 color screen-print on wove paper by Jacob Lawrence

Dickerman, Leah and Elsa Smithgall. Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2015, pp.192, ISBN: 087070964X.

In 1941, Jacob Lawrence, then just twentythree years old, completed a series of sixty small tempera paintings with text captions about the Great Migration. Within months of its making, Lawrence's Migration series was divided between The Museum of Modern Art (even numbered panels) and the Phillips Memorial Gallery (odd numbered panels). The work has since become a landmark in the history of African-American art, a monument in the collections of both institutions, and a crucial example of the way in which history painting was radically reimagined in the modern era. In 2015 and 2016, marking the centenary of the Great Migrations start, the panels will be reunited in exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art and then The Phillips Collection. Published to accompany the exhibition, this publication both grounds Lawrences Migration series in the cultural and political debates that shaped the young artists work and highlights the series continued resonance for artists and writers working today. …

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