100 Years of Protest Art, Part 1


Black people in America are well acquainted with inequality and injustice. They have chronicled these significant markers throughout history. The foundations of history are found in the narrative, photograph, sculpture, and painting. One can surmise that art and protest are synonymous. Though inequities perpetrated against Black people extend from 1619 to the present, there is an abundance of evidence of Black artists depicting protest since 1919. Like today, 1918 found the world amid the Spanish Flu pandemic. This pandemic compounded World War I. The Red Summer of 1919, coined by James Weldon Johnson, commenced when Black soldiers returned home from serving their country in World War I and were met with organized and massive lynching, riots, murder, and employment discrimination. There were race riots in fifteen (15) cities across the U.S, including Chicago.


Perhaps it was the violence and the excessive energy that foreshadowed the Harlem Renaissance from 1920 to 1940. Artists like Archibald Motley, Jacob Lawrence, William Johnson, Horace Pippin, Aaron Douglas, Lois Mailou Jones, Augusta Savage, Richmond Barthe, Charles Alson, James Van Der Zee, and others explored the flowering of Black Identity, the effects of slavery and institutional racism.

During the Chicago Renaissance of the 1930s, artists like Charles White, Margaret Burroughs, Elizabeth Catlett, and writers Margaret Walker, Richard Wright, and Gwendolyn Brooks' friends, neighbors, and lovers had leftist leanings and plunged into socially conscious art.


Charles White tried to depict Black life as having its share of artists, philosophers, orators, explorers, and military heroes, elevating the Black man's image. His paintings of Black History and the depiction of ordinary work and people were a protest compared to the negative images depicting the Black life without value.


Elizabeth Catlett, who was married to Charles White, was known for her activism and advocacy, that the United States revoked her citizenship. Her sculptures and prints were highly political and broadcasted the struggle of Black women.


The ultimate beginning of Black artists becoming more involved in protest art began with their association with Mexican Muralists. The Mexican influence lasted from the 1930s to the 1950s. The Chicago group of artists was significantly attracted to Diego Riviera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Narratives, depicted in art at that time, such as racial violence, class struggle, and social violence, are very relevant today and are the most frequent themes. Some Black artists of this era even drove to Mexico City to observe the murals and were so inspired upon returning they transferred into the WPA's muralist division. The murals were well received and propelled many Black Artists into recognition. This influence was later seen among Caucasian artists in depictions of Police Violence in "American Tragedy" by Philip Evergood in 1937 and lynching scenes by Black artists Catlett and Hales Woodruff. Charles Alson, John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Sargent Johnson, Jacob Lawrence, Charles White, John Wilson, and Hale Woodruff were African American artists most profoundly influenced by Mexican artists.


Continue reading 100 Years of Protest Art, Part 2


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