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SPENCER MICHELS: The setting is the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, a classical style museum with the famous statue “The Thinker” by Rodin in the courtyard. It was an African-American pupil of Rodin who sculpted “Ethiopia Awakening,” the starting point for a major exhibit on the Harlem Renaissance. “Rhapsodies in Black,” the sculpture and the exhibit, evoke African ancestry and the rebirth of black culture in America after centuries of slavery and repression.
The art on display tells the story of that lively, mostly poor section of Manhattan known as Harlem, where thousands of blacks from rural areas and the South migrated after the first world war. According to the show’s San Francisco curator, Timothy Burgard, those immigrants created a new culture based partly on the old.
TIMOTHY BURGARD, Exhibit Curator: The Harlem Renaissance is an extraordinary moment, usually defined as being between the first and second world wars, in which there’s really a sense of cultural renewal, really a sense that Harlem and by a larger context, African-American culture, are re-embracing history but also making new history and making new culture.
SPENCER MICHELS: Through photography, painting, sculpture, writing, and even music, artists, mostly but not exclusively black, celebrated the wide range of African-American culture. Because Harlem was a major home of jazz, the exhibit is accompanied by the ever-present sound of music. Jazz certainly helped inspire Archibald Motley, who painted an upbeat “Blues” in 1919, which Burgard lists as one of the show’s highlights.
TIMOTHY BURGARD: This is a jazz nightclub in Paris in which–it’s called a black and tan club, where people of all different races and colors mixed freely togther, something that was difficult to do in the United States, and yet that he titles it “Blues,” I think, is very interesting because it suggests literally an undertone or an undercurrent. And I think this is true in most African-American experience.
SPENCER MICHELS: Some artists were more direct. Edward Burra, an English painter, portrayed Harlem as seamy and sultry, off-color, and perhaps illegal. Yet, even among the resients in this picture, there is a sense of style. And style was part of the rebirth, according to Nashormeh Lindo, an artist and art educator who worked on the show.
NASHORMEH LINDO, Art Educator: Even today if you go to Harlem, you may see people who don’t have a lot of money. It doesn’t mean they’re not the best-dressed people walking up and down the street. They set the style. People dressed well when it was time to go out. But I think that there is a sense of spirit that’s in Harlem that kind of denies that poverty on some level.
SPENCER MICHELS: Lindo points to James Van der Zee’s 1932 photo of a Harlem couple and their car.
NASHORMEH LINDO: I mean, this is in the Depression. Are they well-to-do, or are they just taking a wonderful photograph? Who knows? I mean, how much difference does it make, since it captures the sense of the time and the feeling of the time.
SPENCER MICHELS: The feeling of the time was exciting. There was a sense of well-being and opportunity in the air, not just among artists. Pictures of returning black troops from World War I still inspire Lindo.
NASHORMEH LINDO: If I had my choice in places in time I could go back to, one of those places in time would be February 1919, as the Harlem Hell Fighters were marching up Fifth Avenue and just when they turned that corner at 110th and Lennox and the band started playing, “Here Comes My Baby Now,” I think I would have loved to have been at that moment in that place and time.
SPENCER MICHELS: While some black political activity was beginning, the back to Africa campaign of Marcus Garvey and his Negro Peoples of the World, for example, culture reigned.
TIMOTHY BURGARD: Black leaders at this time actually consciously decided that they would use culture, rather than politics per se, to achieve their goals, among which, of course, were civil rights and liberties, which we would tink of as being one of the great contributions of this movement. But they felt that culture would be an easier way for mainstream America to accept some of these ideas.
SPENCER MICHELS: Mainstream America didn’t always go along, and so many African-Americans with roots in Harlem had to move to Europe to achieve stardom. The exhibit includes old film from France of singer Josephine Baker, now considered part of the renaissance. (JOSEPHINE BAKER SINGING)
TIMOTHY BURGARD: She did start in Harlem, but, interestingly, she was actually considered too short and also too dark-sinned to be a star in Harlem. She goes to Paris and becomes an international star, most famously for this dance in which she wore a skirt made of bananas and not much else, and creates this wonderful persona on stage of this powerful, almost mythical, African or African-American woman.
SPENCER MICHELS: Paul Robeson’s 1936 film “Song of Freedom,” the story of a dockworker’s recovery of his African heritage, is on display as well. Robeson moved to Europe in the 20’s to escape racism. African heritage was one major theme of the Harlem Renaissance used by many painters who felt free at last to explore roots that had been repressed by slavery.
NASHORMEH LINDO: People who enslaved Africans were not interested in having them celebrate their traditions and their heritage because it was a way of controlling them. So, therefore, the art was suppressed.
SPENCER MICHELS: It was a time of transition for African-Americans. And it wasn’t always easy to shake off the stereotypes that white society had imposed on blacks. This silent film at the exhibit, “Charleston,” by French director John Renoir, features a well-known African-American dancer, Johnny Hudgins, wearing black face.
TIMOTHY BURGARD: He’s taught how to do the Charleston by a young French showgirl, and, indeed, he is wearing black face. This is one of the contradictions of the period is that artists like Johnny Hudgins, or even Josephine Baker, with her banana skirt or Paul Robeson in the filming in Africa were forced to deal with some of these stereotypes, even as they attempted to transcend them.
SPENCER MICHELS: It was probably Archibald Motley, even though he was from Chicago, who tried hardest to portray the full range of life for the Negro, as the phrase went, during the Harlem Renaissance.
His “Brown Girl After the Bath” was a traditional classical nude, except for the color of the girl. And his painting of a Holy Roller church scene, called “Tongues,” gives a sense of excitement to practices the prevailing white culture might look down on. In 1926, Motley painted “Cocktails,” a look at a very proper party of sophisticated black women.
NASHORMEH LINDO: When I first saw this picture, it just reminded me of my auntie when she used to have her card parties in the afternoon, and her friends would come over, and some of my other aunts would come, and they may be dressed up, you know, doing their nails and talking about makeup and those kinds of things, and there’s always food around.
And a lot of times people would hold parties or have concerts in their homes because they weren’t allowed to have them in the more established places.
SPENCER MICHELS: But Motley wasn’t afraid to show the dark side of modern life either.
TIMOTHY BURGARD: There’s a wonderful painting called “The Plotters,” which seems to be just that, men around a table in a smoky bar, plotting something that almost certainly has some criminal intent, and that he’s willing to show this side of black culture was one of the great contributions of the Harlem Renaissance.
SPENCER MICHELS: It wasn’t called the Harlem Renaissance until the 1940’s, after it had dissolved with the coming of World War II. But a renaissance it was–a time when black writers and artists themselves became a part of the heritage that inspires African-American art today. The show moves from San Francisco to Washington’s Corcoran Gallery in April.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The exhibition closes in San Francisco this weekend. After its run in Washington, it travels to Los Angeles and Houston.