The representation and contributions of African American culture through the arts had become very important in the first three decades of the twentieth century. African Americans have made major contributions in contemporary arts in the form of music, literature and visual arts during the period of the Harlem Renaissance. Many of these contributions are collaborations by various creative artists, in order to raise or increase cultural heritage and understanding within their own communities. These cultural collaborations were very apparent in relation to visual artists who were influenced by the Harlem Renaissance, and blues music.
The majority of “blues” music that we hear is a reflection of one’s everyday life, love and sorrows. There are many “blues” interpretations that are represented in music forms, literature, and visual arts. The vast part of these “blues” representations are the artists’ way of conveying their own “blues” through social comment.
The “blues” is a distinct form of cultural music that originated after the Civil War. The “blues” has been a great influence on American jazz, theatrical music, poetry, literature, and visual arts for decades. Also, for decades Harlem has been cultural capital of Black America, Harlem was where black writers, jazz musicians, blues musicians, visual artists flocked to from 1919-1929. This flowering period, as it is called, was the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance were many artistic collaborations took place to establish Harlem as the black cultural mecca of the world.
But from the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance until the present, many writers such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston and Jean Toomer had established themselves in Harlem and beyond. In contrast, many of the visual artists of the Harlem Renaissance remain virtually unknown to American art. Many art students in visual classes may be familiar with Black artist such as Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, and Romare Bearden, but are not familiar with their representations.
As a visual arts teacher in the New Haven Public School system, I teach in a Middle School that is predominately Hispanic and African American. During the last twelve years that I have taught at this school, I have only been able to offer my students minimal information about any African American visual artists that have included the concept of “the blues” in their representations. This lack of knowledge of African American artists is the result of low interest of students ans a dearth of information about these artists in our school-based and public libraries.
Therefore, in this unit, there will be two basic focal points. The first focus will be the various works of Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, and Romare Bearden, and how their art was influenced by the Harlem Renaissance, and the literature of that time period. The second focus will center around how each of the above artists’ works was influenced by various blues musicians in the Harlem era. The objectives of this unit are:
1. To explore the art of Jacob Lawrence, Aaron Douglas, and Romare Bearden.
2. To study and analyze artistic work that related to the form of blues music.
This unit is intended for grades seven through ten. It can also be adapted to include students who are in special education and bilingual education programs.
This unit will began with a historical view of the artist Jacob Lawrence, who has produced a sequence of narrative paintings dealing with important figures in Black history. These figures include Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, and Toussant L’Ouverture. He also produced a sixty panel narrative called the “Migration Series.” The unit will then give a brief view of Aaron Douglas’ study of African aesthetics. Douglas is also known for this celebrated series of paintings called “God’s Trombones,” a collaboration with James Weldon Johnson. The final view will center around Romare Bearden and his visual representation of “the blues” in his art. Bearden uses everyday materials such as paper, photos and fabrics to created a definite blues mood similar to that of a blues musicians.