The Met’s Harlem Renaissance Exhibit Says a Lot About the Present

Featured artists for the exhibit that runs through July 28 include Charles Alston, Aaron Douglas, Meta Warrick Fuller, William H. Johnson, Archibald Motley, Winold Reiss, Augusta Savage, James Van Der Zee, Romare Bearden, and Laura Wheeler Waring.

| 28 Mar 2024 | 07:53

The Metropolitan Museum of Art presents the “The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism” exhibition, celebrating the visual art and artists of the Harlem Renaissance (1918-1937) through July 28th.

The Black artists were never as monumentally influential as the music (jazz) which changed the global music taste and literature which put the ideas of black Americans on center stage and built a frame for the civil rights movements.

The museum said the exhibit is instead aimed at exploring “the far-reaching ways in which Black artists portrayed everyday modern life” during the Harlem Renaissance.

The exhibit features some 160 works of painting, sculpture, photography, film, and ephemera, which the Met says is designed to explore the how Black neighborhoods took shape in the 1920s–40s in New York City’s Harlem and nationwide in the early decades of the Great Migration, when millions of Blacks began to move away from the segregated rural South.

This visual art, however, like all art in the Met, has eternalized the scenes, values and thoughts, both good and bad, heroic and evil and mediocre, of a significant time and class of people now extinct. All this in an art form which speaks to us much more directly than literature or music. That is what makes the pieces of this exhibit important, not the fact that they feature black art.

This is the second time the Met Museum has exhibited the art of Harlem. The first, disastrous attempt in 1969 featured not a single black artist; instead it was made up of photos and news clippings of and about the black people in Harlem. Seventy-five artists fed up with exclusion of this kind formed the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) which gathered to protest the exposition in front of the Met. Unfortunately, this caused heavy publicity which only made the exhibit that much more popular.

The BECC continued its fight against racist museums in New York through the 1970s. When an exhibit that should have had black art didn’t, they organized a counter-exhibit somewhere in the city. Around the 1980s museums saw inclusion as the better approach for their expositions and credited the BECC with changing the American art world.

The new Met exhibit doesn’t mention its predecessor but made sure to stay away from even the possibility of controversy. To begin with, it employed a black woman, Denise Murrell, as the curator. Murrell did a good job of including all important features of Harlem during the Renaissance era: complicated family dynamics due to older family members having experienced slavery while those younger enjoyed greater freedom, the wild Harlem nightlife full of jazz which became a musical treat that spread across America, Europe and eventually Africa and the activism which was the defining trait of the Harlem Renaissance, this aspect was most prominent in the portraits of thinkers, prophets and artists and self-portraits which at the time served to show that black people too are human beings.

The artists of the Harlem Renaissance, therefore those in the exhibit, are wildly different from one another. Laura Wheeler Waring, for example, was a highly educated black woman from Connecticut who made her way to France, known for her portraits of Harlem women and children.

Winold Reiss on the other hand was a white man from Germany who first came to the U.S. to paint native Americans and eventually painted portraits of people like W.E.B Dubois and illustrated what some consider to be the guidebook of the Harlem Renaissance written by Dubois’ rival Alain Locke, a gay man, which several men of the Renaissance were. This movement was not a black movement, it was a movement for the liberation of artistic expression which inspired all sorts of people. Portraits of “negros” by Pablo Picasso and French artist Henri Matisse are included in the Met exhibit.

The curator of the show being black begs the question of whether only the members of a certain identity can participate in the activities of said identity, the opposite thereof being what we call cultural appropriation which seemed to be irrelevant to the artists of the Harlem Renaissance. This concept is even more curious when you consider that of the couple hundred visitors of the Harlem Renaissance exhibit at the time I was there, I counted only 13 were black. The majority were older white women.

A small boy standing in front of a painting by Archibald Motley Jr. titled “Portrait of a Cultured Lady” says to his mother “She looks white!” Funny enough, Motley, who actually never lived in Harlem (he was from Chicago), believed he could deconstruct racial stereotypes by painting cultured black people. That boy’s comment means he both succeeded and failed. He succeeded at painting the classy blacks of the Harlem Renaissance but to this day racial stereotypes are engraved in our American culture.

Noah Augustin is a young person of a color and a senior in a New York City public high school.