Romare Bearden (1912-1988) was one of many Federal Art Project artists whose job it was to interpret American culture between the years 1936-1939. This enormous program, a division of the Works Progress Administration, was undertaken during the Depression, a time when many people were out of work, and employed over 5,000 people in the fine arts and crafts. Thousands of works of art were added to the nation’s galleries and museums, and hundreds of murals were commissioned for post offices, schools, and other public buildings. For many artists working at this time, the W.P.A. kept them stimulated and active as well as on the payroll.
Bearden’s paintings of Black life in the South fit into the program agenda, which encouraged imaginative and emotional interpretations of all aspects of American life rendered in a technical, realistic manner. He did not stay within the artistic mainstream, however, and throughout his life he studied and borrowed from Western, Chinese, Japanese, and African art. The Bible, Homer, and Jazz were also sources for his creative expression.
Believing that meaningful art needed a subject, he chose to concentrate on the African-American experience. His paintings were intended to go beyond what they appeared to represent, conveying the historical and ceremonial content of his subject matter. Through a personal visual language which included images symbolizing memories of the South, Harlem, and, later, the Caribbean, along with guitar players, conjure women, trains, cats, birds, and other winged creatures, Bearned expressed his rich heritage. Examples of his symbols can be seen in
(1978), in which the train represents another world and a break from long, boring days. In
(1970) the conjure woman represents the African diaspora, the keeper of spiritual knowledge, and the manipulation of mysterious forces.
Ritual activities of daily work and life, such as baptisms, funerals, families eating together, and nightclub scenes, tied his personal experience to a more universal one which he hoped would elevate his works above “mere designs.”
The medium which best suited his purposes was collage, in which unrelated pieces of paper and other materials are glued onto a surface. Bearden used bits and fragments of photos, photocopies, and enlargements, along with his own recycled works and additional paint, to create images. The parts were layered, overlapped, torn, and otherwise assembled to create a unified statement. By all standards, Bearden achieved unique results.
JACOB LAWRENCE (Figures 17-22)
By the time Jacob Lawrence (1917- ) was thirty, he was the best-known African-American artist in the United States and was represented by a New York gallery. His universal themes, painted in colorful, flat shapes, have gained a wide audience and he is also greatly respected as a teacher of drawing, painting, and design.
Although acceptance as an artist happened relatively early in life, getting to that point required enormous commitment. Lawrence grew up in Harlem during the Depression, juggling odd jobs and absorbing the atmosphere left over from the Harlem Renaissance. While attending various workshops and art center classes, Lawrence was influenced by other writers and artists to turn towards history as a source for his inspiration. In 1938 he painted the
series (the story of a slave revolt in Haiti). Powerful subject matter was being developed at this time in murals in Mexico and the United States by Diego Rivera; in
(1937), Picasso’s painting of a Nazi bombing attack on Spain; and in works of art by W.P.A. artists. Lawrence’s approach was different from these other artists as he communicated his strong messages through the controlled distortion of shape, space, and color, avoiding raw expressionism as well as cubist abstraction.
Throughout his career, Lawrence worked in the narrative format with subject matter either describing contemporary life in the Black community or the historic struggle of an oppressed people.
Migration of the Negro
(1940-41) was a series of sixty panels done in tempera paint which included images of a crowded train station and the inside of a church, as well as a noose left from a lynching. The everyday life of workers, such as shoemakers, seamstresses, and ironers, was painted with emphasis on the tools of the trade and the hands that used them. A series concerning World War II was finished after the artist had served in the Coast Guard. Even a stay in a mental hospital provided material for Lawrence’s personal creative expression.
The works of art completed during the 1980s maintain earlier themes, but with several variations. The workers in the
series are now racially integrated, and the
series reflects moral outrage which reaches beyond national borders. Throughout his career, Lawrence has maintained an emotionally autobiographical position through which he expresses a humanist vision.
FAITH RINGGOLD (Figures 23-28)
Growing up in Harlem, Faith Ringgold (1930- ) heard that only those kids who were too dumb in other classes should take art. Because she was academically gifted as well as artistic, her experiences at school were conflicting. A drawing teacher discouraged her with his racist attitude and male chauvinism. Even as a student at City College of New York, she felt that no one did anything to stimulate her creatively.
Her response was to become a public school teacher and an artist who could get around the biases of the mainstream art world.
Ringgold is by her own definition a politically aware, self-consciously Black woman, a mother, grandmother, writer, and artist. Her creations and statements are responses to the African-American community of Harlem. As a painter in the late sixties and early seventies, her work reflected interracial strife and in 1967 she painted
The Advent of Black Power
, which was reproduced as a U.S. postage stamp.
When her children were young, soft sculptures were Ringgold’s favorite medium and she produced many of these works in collaboration with her mother, Willi Posey, a fashion designer and dressmaker. One of the most important pieces of this time consists of detailed, free standing figures depicting the diversity of Harlem street life, complete with graffiti walls as a backdrop.
The roots of her creative work with fabric did not stem from her mother, however, since Ringgold traces quilt-making back to her great-grandmother Susie Shannon, a slave in antebellum Florida. This creative heritage, combined with painting and writing, was developed by Ringgold into a unique art form, the “story quilt,” her preferred medium for the last ten years. Ringgold’s main concern is the experience of Black women or girls in America. One such story quilt, entitled Tar Beach, is taken from the
Woman on the Bridge
series, completed in 1988. This story has Cassie, the narrator, dreaming of being free to fly off of her rooftop apartment to wherever she wants to go for the rest of her life. Ringgold also has the young heroine performing valiant, creative endeavors, and endows her with the power to free her father from discrimination at work.
Faith Ringgold’s work symbolizes her own life in a number of ways. She lives the freedom interpreted in her art by producing works of art in her home town for half the year and teaching art at the University of California, San Diego, for the other half. Her own heroic and creative endeavors are widely acknowledged, and the
Woman on the Bridge
series is in the collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City.
BETYE SAAR (Figures 29-35)
Betye Saar (1926- ) recalls that her interest in religious spiritualism was sparked by visits to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. The traditional ritual objects of Africa, the South Seas, and the Caribbean seemed to emanate a kind of power, and she began to use objects from diverse cultural and historical contexts in a combined search for her identity as a woman, and artist, and an African-American.
The format for these early pieces was influenced by the boxes of Joseph Cornell (refer to appropriate slides) and she used materials, images, and construction techniques from various sources, found and manufactured, which were then layered and assembled into a unified composition. These works of art, which eventually evolved into altar pieces, were intended to create a relationship between magic and technology in the eye and mind of the viewer.
During a phase in the nineteen sixties, derogatory images of African-Americans were turned into political statements. One example shows Aunt Jemima in the center of the piece surrounded by her power objects, a hand grenade and a rifle.
In more recent works, old photographs of African-American families, lace gloves, handkerchiefs, and other nostalgic fragments are balanced to produce a sense of memory and experience. Phases of the moon, sun, mirrors, and autobiographical symbols, such as photographic fragments of hand or footprints, are also part of Saar’s visual language that promotes self-reflection and personal enlightenment.