Colorful Visions At African-American Art Exhibit For three decades, the Smithsonian Institution has been collecting work by African-American artists, work that is now on display at the American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. The exhibition offers a wide-ranging and colorful view of African-American life.

Colorful Visions At African-American Art Exhibit

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The African-American experience is reflected, right now, on the walls of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington. Exuberant dancing in Chicago, laundry on a line in the nation's capitol, a girl smiling out from her father's warm jacket; photographs, paintings, sculptures from the '20s through the '90s.

Here's NPR special correspondent, Susan Stamberg.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Does this show segregate or at least compartmentalize? Yes, says one of the African-Americans who served as consultants. But Renee Ater, art historian at the University of Maryland, says it also shows African Americans involved in visual conversations that have absorbed all artists of all races.

RENEE ATER: They're concerned with color. They're concerned with line. And they're concerned with form. And that's one of the things that you see in this show. And the other thing about this exhibition is that you see African-American faces looking out at you.

STAMBERG: Unusual, still, in a 21st century museum; a story about one of the artists in the show, Lois Jones, underscores the point. Jones studied painting in Paris and Boston, taught at Howard, had a firm reputation. But curator Virginia Mecklenburg says Jones' background took her just so far.

VIRGINIA MECKLENBURG: In the '30s, when she wanted to send her work to a show, she usually sent it anonymously and she did not deliver it. She sent it by an art shipper. Because she was fairly convinced, and rightly so, that if whatever museum was receiving the painting knew that it was by a black woman, that it would probably have very little chance of getting on the walls.

STAMBERG: Now, the American Art Museum walls are full of 100 works by 43 African Americans, collected for 30 years by the Smithsonian. The museum claims the largest collection of African-American art in the world a critical mass that prompts this exhibit.

More photographs than paintings in the show. Powerful black and white images shot in Baltimore, Houston, Norfolk, 170th Street in the Bronx. That one, taken by Robert McNeill in 1938, is called "Make a Wish," the title of a movie poster hanging in the corner of the image - its sub-title, "Bronx Slave Market." In front of a wall, a man in a cap and beat-up leather jacket, and two women wrapped in coats against the sunny cold - ratty fur, some help, maybe, along one coat collar. All three are looking for day work - cleaning, hauling. It's a photograph about patience, endurance and hope.

MECKLENBURG: They never knew if they were going to get work. They just sat there and waited.

STAMBERG: Curator Virginia Mecklenburg says the photo's line-up remains familiar.

MECKLENBURG: You see it in Home Depot parking lots as men who are waiting for day labor, for construction work, for gardening, lawn work.

STAMBERG: Farm labor - the kind that reaps sweat and aches along with the crops - is painter Benny Andrews' subject in "The Long Rows." Made in 1966, it's Andrew's memory of his sharecropper parents, hoeing the red Georgia Earth on a hot summer day. You see a broad back and backside over bare legs.

BETSY BROUN: We don't actually know if it's a man or a woman, hoeing a row of cotton.

STAMBERG: This is Betsy Broun, director of the American Art Museum.

BROUN: But this figure looks like an outdoor monument or sculpture, so massive. And suddenly we realize the perspective we're getting is that of a small child trailing behind.

STAMBERG: And whoever it is, is bending in a way that hurts your back...


STAMBERG: ...holding that hoe to the Earth.

On a nearby wall, two little boys who also could have been working in that field, Malvin Gray Johnson's Depression-Era painting is called "Brothers." Barefoot with big hands for their age, maybe eight and 10, the boys wear overalls and hats against the sun.

Again, curator Virginia Mecklenburg.

MECKLENBURG: One of the things I most love about it is the way the younger brother really leans up against the other, as if the brother is the protector. I mean he is someone who will care for the younger sibling.

STAMBERG: This is made in 1934 and it's an image that you'd expect to see of Southern life, African-American Southern life in that day. It's almost now in the 21st century, a cliche, because thank goodness we've come very far in so many ways. And yet, I bet in its time, in its day, it was very unusual to have a painting like this made.

MECKLENBURG: It was unusual. Johnson actually did this while he was working for something called the Public Works of Art Project, which was a government-sponsored program that allowed artists to paint whatever it was that they chose to paint. Well, scenes of little black boys sitting in a yard would not have had any market, certainly in New York in the 1930s. But because of this federal program, Johnson could paint things that he thought were important for us to see.

STAMBERG: Hughie Lee Smith shows us a more contemporary image of two young people, girls with the long skinny legs of adolescence. His 1970 painting is full of tension. Museum director Betsy Broun says it's clear, though also mysterious, why Smith calls the work "Confrontation."

BROUN: They're both standing somewhat separated, somewhat apart and they're in a landscape that's a little hard to understand. It appears to have a ruined wall behind them, a brick wall. Beyond that you have a glimpse of the water of the ocean. It has a feeling of desolation.

STAMBERG: Broun thinks Hughie Lee Smith may be the great poet of alienation.

BROUN: He is able to convey the thwarted lives of growing up in a society where the full opportunity is not open to you. And I think this was really important, you know, after WWII and even before the Civil Rights Movement and after to convey that, that sense of what it means to be an African-American adolescent, ready to move ahead with your life but feeling you're lost in a ruined landscape in some way.

STAMBERG: "African-American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights era and Beyond" remains at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through early September, then travels to seven other museums in the country. It offers a wide, colorful range of visions - tense, hopeful, optimistic, abstract - plus a stunning catalogue.

In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

INSKEEP: If you can't travel to see the exhibit, not to worry, you can see works from the show at

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.