One of the greatest cultural phenomena of the interwar period in the United State was undoubtedly the Harlem Renaissance. It has appeared in the aftermath of the first wave of the Great Migration, when thousands of African Americans left the Southern parts of the confederation and populated the North to reach social and economic stability and dignified existence.
The streets of the New York district called Harlem became a site of ongoing shifts and a climate that enabled artists, writers, scientists, and other Black Americans to articulate their own culture and racial pride. The Negro movement, as the Harlem Renaissance was called at the time, nurtured numerous highly talented women and men who embraced modernity to the full extent while exploring and celebrating their racial heritage, as well as their position in arts that were overshadowed by the white privilege.
One of the leading artists of this movement was Aaron Douglas, a painter highly acknowledged for his astonishing visual language based on the intersection of modernist aesthetic and African traditional art. His contribution to representing Black histories and experiences is grand and is perhaps best shown in his panel series of four murals titled Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery to Reconstruction.
Now, before we come to the characteristics and the interpretation of the same, it is mandatory to revisit Douglas’s artistic domains and his pathway saturated with the social engagement that was very much unprecedented at the time.
Aaron Douglas (1899 – 1979) was a distinct painter, illustrator, and visual arts educator who gained recognition for his distinguished, socially charged murals and illustrations centered on Afro-centric imagery. After high school, alongside working numerous jobs to support himself, he took free classes at the Detroit Museum of Art before studying college at the University of Nebraska where he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1922. For a year, the artist worked as a waiter and then a teaching position appeared at Lincoln High School in Kansas City, Missouri, where he stayed until 1925.
Burning from a desire to fully commit himself to art, Douglas decided to travel to Paris, and on his way there he stopped in Harlem, at the very peak of the Harlem Renaissance. Influenced by the writings of Alain Locke, and the teachings of a German portraitist Winold Reiss, the artist felt empowered to focus on Afro-centric themes. During this time, he served as a contributor to various magazines, and in 1927 Douglas produced one of his first murals at Club Ebony, the central spot of Harlem nightlife. Several scholarships occurred, as well as other mural commissions, and the artist acted as president of the Harlem Artists Guild in 1935. In the 1940s, Douglas took the teaching post at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, while attending Columbia University Teacher’s College in New York City. He retired from teaching in 1966 and died at the age of 79 in 1979.
Although Aaron Douglas is best known as a muralist and illustrator, he was also a notable portraitist. In general, his aesthetic is described as abstract, but not entirely deprived of figuration. His two-dimensional compositions inhabited by faceless silhouettes of human figures generate the symbolic potential of modernity under which the marginalized felt liberated to express themselves regardless of the social canons. By matching the West African masks and sculptures imagery with a painterly technique reminiscent of Cubism, Douglas managed to construct a powerful social commentary, while being among the first ones to use visual arts as a vehicle for the outspoken articulation of racial issues and segregation in the United States.
The four murals, part of the series Aspects of Negro Life, were produced by Douglas in 1934. The works visually trace the emergence of Black America, starting from their African homeland, to their histories in slavery, the emancipation, and the reemergence of African traditions. Aside from the fact all the murals are equally important for the understanding of the artist’s vision, it seems that the second panel entitled From Slavery to Reconstruction is most striking as it encapsulates Douglas’ style and the way this painting impacted the entire New Negro movement.
Nevertheless, we will start from the first mural, The Negro in an African Setting that features bewildered silhouettes in their African homeland; the mentioned, second one features the silhouettes expressing the doubt of African American slaves amid the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. The third mural called Song of the Towers captures the boldness and strength of the Black leaders at the time. The figure holding a document stands in the middle while pointing to the Capitol, and empowering the Blacks to free themselves. The final mural An Idyll of the Deep South depicts the withdrawal of the Union soldiers from the South and the rise of white supremacist groups, most notably the Ku Klux Klan.
The land, the sun, the foliage, and human beings that are present on each mural from the Aspects of Negro Life series are omnipresent natural elements present throughout most of Douglas’ artwork. For instance, in this particular series, he used the concentric circles to highlight important documents; the cotton-growing from the land underlines the element of foliage that takes a prominent role in African American slavery.
After Douglas showed the mural for the first time, he was exposed to severe criticism as the glorification of African heritage during the Harlem Renaissance was perceived as an alleged portrayal of blacks as inferior to whites. According to some, this kind of representation omitted or rather negated the emancipation of African Americans as it coincided with the misconception of what was considered civil and what was considered primitive at the time (yet another white supremacists stereotype that came from the colonial era).
Before the Harlem Renaissance, there was basically no artists inspired by the traditional African artwork. However, Douglas decided to move away from the typical European approach and embrace something novel and easy to connect with. Despite the fact his work was discarded and seen as grotesque during the New Negro Movement, Aspects of Negro Life succeeded in underlining the urgency for African American identity.
Finally, throughout his years as an artist and educator, Douglas managed to alter the way other artists viewed African Americans. As a prominent president of several activist organizations that supported thousands of artists, and the first Black American artist who consciously worked with African imagery, he left an enormous legacy especially with this mural that still inspires many in the current moment marked by racism and urgency of political struggle for racial equality.
In paintings, murals, and book illustrations, Aaron Douglas (1899–1979) produced the most powerful visual legacy of the Harlem Renaissance, prompting the philosopher and writer Alain Locke to dub him the “father of Black American art.” Working from a politicized concept of personal identity and a utopian vision of the future, the artist made a lasting impact on American art history and on the nation’s cultural heritage. Douglas’s role, as well as that of the Harlem Renaissance in general, in the evolution of American modernism deserves close scholarly attention, which it finally receives in this beautifully illustrated book.
Featured image: Aaron Douglas - Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery to Reconstruction, 1934. © Aaron Douglas. Image courtesy New York Public Library.