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Art Equality: From the WPA to Black Mountain and Basquiat

In the age of Black Lives Matter, history reminds us that liberation and social justice begin with creative expression.

Augusta Savage with one of her sculptures for the Federal Art Project, 1938. (Photo: Andrew Herman / Archives of American Art)

“I have always wanted my art to service my people – to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential. We have to create an art for liberation and for life.” – Elizabeth Catlett, artist

Art is remembering. It is the past – alive and well in the present – informing truth in the here and now, and of future possibilities to come.

Established through an executive order by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) supported tens of thousands of artists. As reported by “American Experience,” a video history series on PBS, the WPA funded “2,566 murals and 17,744 pieces of sculpture” for public buildings across the nation, in addition to funding a multitude of infrastructure projects, highways, bridges, public buildings, parks and more. The WPA especially benefited African Americans, including artists, so that by the mid-1930s approximately “250,000 African-American adults were working on WPA projects.”

“Artists have a kind of antenna that’s future directed. They tend to be visionary.”

One such artist was Aaron Douglas, who created “some of the most recognizable images of the Harlem Renaissance,” according to the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Douglas studied under Winold Reiss – an early German modernist who illustrated Alain Locke’s famous anthology, The New Negro. In the 1930s, Douglas painted murals for the WPA, as a way to give pride to fellow African Americans through visual stories about people of African descent. Douglas also created illustrations for books and magazines such as Vanity Fair and American Mercury, and, as the Enoch Pratt Free Library notes, his highly “stylized paintings, with their bold, geometric shapes have become the most dramatic visual documentation of the [Harlem Renaissance] movement.”

Another social catalyst of the Harlem Renaissance and WPA was Augusta Savage. A native of Florida, Savage was largely known for her involvement in the “New Negro Movement” during the 1920s and 1930s, which according to the NAACP promoted a renewed sense of racial pride, cultural self-expression, economic independence and progressive politics.

An excerpt from her biographical entry at the Florida Department of State Division of Cultural Affairs recalls her legacy, in part saying:

Augusta Savage fought poverty, racism and sexism to become a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance … becoming one of the most influential black teachers of her time and a strong voice for civil rights for blacks. After founding her own teaching studio – the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts – Savage became active in enrolling black artists in the newly founded Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Federal Art Project. She soon was tapped to direct the program, becoming a leading figure in New York’s community of black artists.

For all her many achievements, it appears, however, that Savage was a rather humble woman. “I have created nothing really beautiful, really lasting,” the artist once said, “but if I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess, then my monument will be in their work.”

Like many African Americans of the Harlem Renaissance, Savage was an artist, educator and social justice activist. Completing her tenure at the WPA, in 1939, she founded the Salon of Contemporary Negro Art in Harlem, which was the first commercial art gallery representing works by African Americans.

Savage was also an entrepreneur, and she simultaneously broke color and gender barriers at local, national and global levels.

Two individuals that Savage mentored, Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight, both became acclaimed artists in their own right. And during the 1940s, in the age of Jim Crow segregation – at the invitation of Josef and Anni Albers, who were former instructors at Germany’s Bauhaus School – Lawrence became an instructor at Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina, where Walter Gropius, Albert Einstein and Buckminster Fuller also taught among many other notables, like Harlem Renaissance visitors, Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes.

Juliette Harris – an expert in visual art and material culture, and a consulting editor and former editor-in-chief of the International Review of African American Art – says, “Lawrence was very ambitious.” More broadly, Harris, who was a scriptwriter for Stories of Illumination and Growth: John Biggers’ Hampton Murals, which won a regional Emmy Award, says she perceives African-American artists as agents for progressive social change. “I agree that artists have a kind of antenna that’s future directed, that’s pointed toward the future – especially visual artists, because they are visually oriented,” she said. “They tend to be visionary, in terms of developments in all areas of life.”

“Basquiat was certainly the first person to realize the application of graffiti art as fine art.”

Meanwhile, Nell Painter, the Edwards professor of American history, emeritus at Princeton University, who is also a digital artist, told Truthout, “When I think about Black artists who directly addressed Black history, civil rights and wrongs … about advances in civil rights causes, I think about Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White.” Painter, the author of numerous books, including Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol and The History of White People, referred to Catlett and White as “very engaged artists … the foremost in the 20th century.” She said, “They actually made art, either through text or imagery, that included [the] Black Panthers and ‘Black is Beautiful.'” And then, Painter added, “for many other artists, like Jacob Lawrence and Aaron Douglas, they addressed American history, rather than being engaged [directly] in the struggle.”

But what about today – what artists deserve credit for directly inspiring Generations X and Y? One of the most prolific 1980s protégés of Andy Warhol’s Factory, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, certainly fits the bill.

“Basquiat was certainly the first person to realize the application of graffiti art as fine art,” said Harris, and regarding “his social awareness, he was decidedly non-elitist.” On Basquiat and Black power, Harris says Basquiat was “oblivious to a lot of what was going on because of his heroin use” but argues that he was still an agent of progressive social change because “some of his ways of creating were catalytic.”

Harris says that earlier in his career Basquiat put a lot of effort into “connecting the hip-hop rappers of the early to mid-80s in his realm of visual art,” including Fab 5 Freddy, a musician, artist and filmmaker who was the original host for one of MTV’s highest-rated shows, “Yo! MTV Raps.” Along with Keith Haring, Basquiat and others, Fab 5 Freddy is “considered one of the architects of the ‘street art’ movement,” Harris added, and is regarded as the blueprint for artists today like Shepard Fairey, Os Gêmeos, Barry McGee, Banksy and KAWS.

Nevertheless, to many art observers, activists and historians, it remains apparent that an ongoing omission of African Americans in the mainstream visual arts sphere exists – both in terms of artists and in terms of who is depicted in mainstream art. It wasn’t until 1990 that the White House displayed its first image of an African American: a bust of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by noted African-American artist, Charles Alston. And since first opening its doors almost 90 years ago, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) “has devoted its galleries to a major retrospective of only one African-American artist: the sculptor Martin Puryear, whose work comes out of biomorphic abstraction and eschews overt racial themes,” according to a 2014 New York Times article.

In spite of this, a wide spectrum of African-American artists are receiving recognition on the national stage, whether for work created as tools for social change, or simply as expressive statements from the mind and heart of the artist.

A 2014 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, entitled “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties,” included, among many important works of art, a painting by Sam Gilliam, entitled “Red April,” painted in response to Dr. King’s assassination. And in 2015, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago produced an exhibition, entitled “The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now,” that showcased the “multifaceted world of the black avant-garde in Chicago during the 1960s alongside a selection of contemporary artists’ interpretations of this heritage.”

Headed by Thelma Golden – a laser-focused curator and historian possessing an extraordinary gift of style and gab – the Studio Museum Harlem in in New York City has exhibited the artwork of many talented and socially aware African Americans.

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York and the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History in Atlanta hold the top two public collections of African-American art and artifacts in the nation, and African-American artists have other advocates, like noted author and scholar, Richard J. Powell.

Additionally, there are websites like Black Art Project and Black Artist News, providing well-researched, up-to-date and historical happenings about African-American artists, including those pushing the envelope on racial justice, and making space and echo chambers for artistic leaders today – like Mickalene Thomas and Kehinde Wiley – and of course, many future artists to come.

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