African American artists possess a unique perspective on their birthplace. Influenced by their heritage, black artists such as Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and Charles White often examined the frustrations, aspirations, and ideals of a people seeking opportunity and equality. Catlett, three of whose grandparents worked as slaves, explained that her purpose was “to present black people in their beauty and dignity for ourselves and others to understand and enjoy and to exhibit my work where black people can visit and find art to which they can relate.” Like many African American artists she portrayed the downtrodden as a source of validation and strength and a means toward fighting oppression.
Artists favored a straightforward, realistic approach to depict themes introduced in the 1920s during the Harlem Renaissance, the first self-conscious cultural movement among people of color. African American history, racial pride, the effects of political and social injustice, and the struggle for freedom are some of the topics explored in powerful, compelling images. Candid portrayals of daily life include scenes that emphasize the importance of religion and music in African American culture.
Because racial discrimination barred African Americans from many opportunities, they often first gained access to printmaking instruction and facilities in art centers sponsored by the Works Progress Administration/Federal Arts Project, which from 1935 to 1943 provided jobs for thousands of unemployed artists. The WPA/FAP also funded the hiring of teachers at community art centers like Karamu House in Cleveland, where Elmer Brown, Charles Sallée, William Smith, and Hughie Lee-Smith taught or studied. Their work documents the hardships of the Great Depression while revealing the vitality of black communities.
Contemporary African American artists no longer rely on social realism to tell their stories, but their work continues to reflect the legacy of suffering and inequality. While Glenn Ligon and Willie Cole mine black history and literature, producing powerful and provocative images, local artist Dexter Davis divulges the effects of a childhood inundated with violence, and Lorna Simpson and Ellen Gallagher scrutinize identity issues. Kara Walker, whose complex and often ambiguous view is controversial, uses black silhouettes to explore the idea that the weak accept the strong with benign passivity.
Although cultural heritage defines the concerns of most of the artists represented in the exhibition Our Stories, other black artists have been preoccupied with mainstream aesthetic issues, experimenting with abstraction and other innovative styles. Norman Lewis and Beauford Delaney, for instance, were making nonrepresentational works by the mid-1940s when Abstract Expressionism was also developing. Today Martin Puryear, primarily a sculptor, etches organic shapes similar to his constructions, while Clarence Morgan’s prints reflect a totally intuitive approach.