“African American Art in the 20th Century,” a traveling exhibit of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, evokes the rich legacy left by black artists.
The show features works by 34 artists including such legends as Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, and the acclaimed artist and Pittsburgh native Renee Stout. It visits the Westmoreland Museum of American Art this Sunday through May 10.
The works range from paintings, sculptures and prints to conceptual pieces, said Barbara L. Jones, the Westmoreland’s chief curator. That’s no surprise: In the time period represented, mainly the 1930s through the ’90s, black artists worked in a multitude of genres and styles, from social realism to abstract expressionism and beyond. Many of the works comment on contemporary events, from the Depression to the civil-rights struggle. Some artists, including painter Loïs Mailou Jones, draw on traditional African culture; others, like mixed-media master Bearden, celebrate African-American innovators in artistic fields like jazz. (Bearden also has a major public artwork in Pittsburgh, his 1984 mural “Pittsburgh Recollections,” located in the Gateway T stop, Downtown.)
Jones said a revelation lies in the work of artists whose legacy has been obscured by time and racism, like abstract painter Felrath Hines, and multidisciplinary artist Sargent Johnson (1887-1967), who was frequently honored during his life, but is less remembered now. Some, like painter Alma Thomas, born in 1891, didn’t receive recognition until late in life. Others, including painter William Johnson, born in 1901, became better known after his death, in 1970.
“They were showing in exhibitions but they weren’t gaining the same recognition as some of their white counterparts,” said Jones. “It’s sort of an eye-opening exhibition to me to learn that these artists were really out there and making such an impact and telling their story of the period in which they worked.”
Several of the artists are still active, including sculptor Melvin Edwards, known for his powerful works in welded metal; Sam Gilliam, famed for his innovative abstract “drape paintings”; and Stout, a Carnegie Mellon University graduate who became the first American to have work exhibited in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.
Stout will visit the museum April 29 for a public conversation with Pittsburgh-based artist Alysha B. Wormsley.
Other related program includes a series of ticketed Enrichment Tours of the exhibit, on March 5, April 2, and April 30, and a film series, Pioneers of African-American Cinema.
The exhibit opens to the public Sunday. Admission to the Westmoreland Museum is free.
WESA receives funding from the Westmoreland Museum of American Art.