“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1901 in the Atlantic Monthly. What soon followed was an intellectual and artistic revolution that was first embodied in the Harlem Renaissance. At the dawn of this century, we find plenty of problems, but a transforming color line and racial diversity now informs and enriches our culture.
A good example of that potential can be found at the latest exhibition about the Harlem Renaissance at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. It’s the first exhibition of black artists at the museum in more than 20 years. “It is unlike anything we have in our collection here at the museum and our collection consists primarily of 20th century American art,” said Allison Amick, curator of the exhibition. “And so for us to not have works in this area was a void.”
With more than 100 paintings, sculptures, photographs and influential books on display, Amick said the museum wants to show visitors the many genres and influences that grew out of Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s. It was a time when writers, musicians and visual artists drew upon each others’ work and blended historical narratives, jazz beats, European modernism and African art to express a newly liberated black identity.
The show begins with “The New Negro,” a collection of writings which examined African-Americans’ contributions to shaping culture. It was edited by Alain Locke, who along with poet Langston Hughes, is seen as a founding father of the Harlem Renaissance.
The impact of the movement carried well beyond the 1930s, as seen in the collages of Romare Bearden and Faith Ringgold’s Jo Baker’s Bananas (1997). There’s also a look back at Oklahoma City’s own connection to the period, with photos of Ralph Ellison, author of the seminal novel, “The Invisible Man,” who was born in Oklahoma City.
The exhibition at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art is on view through April 19.