Because black people were prohibited from participating in the dominant American culture except if they were the main attractions singing or dancing for the entertainment of white audiences, African American culture developed separately. While African Americans have been producing visual art in the Americas since slavery, as a means to stay connected with their cultures without getting in trouble with slave owners, it's only recently their art is being accepted into mainstream culture. During the 1950s African American art was dominated by Abstract Expressionism and realism, by artists like Charles Alston. The 1960s and '70s were the rise of Black Expressionism. In the '80s African American art was the subject of a number of pioneering exhibitions, such as Black Art—Ancestral Legacy: The African Impulse in African American Art (Dallas Museum of Art, 1989), that brought together the works of African, Caribbean, and African American academic and folk artists. The most celebrated time for the arts in black history was the Harlem Renaissance. At the time, African American people were better able to afford education to obtain degrees in the arts. Because Alain Locke was a champion of the arts, his assessments of the movement established norms for black art. Artists like Aaron Douglas, Hale Woodruff, and Augusta Savage played a huge role in establishing black aesthetics in an art world that wouldn’t readily accept them. While they created their own opportunities in Harlem, their presence made it known that African Americans can create great art and that they possess the artistic and cognitive skills to do so. Although the Great Depression devastated the country, it also created opportunities for African American artists. With aid from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Augusta Savage was able to lead the Harlem Community Center and The New Deal’s Federal Arts Projects encouraged black artists to create art for upliftment (Robinson).
Edmonia Lewis became the first professional sculptor representing both African American and Native-American ancestry, and the only Black female of the era recognized in the American art scene. Lewis graduated from Oberlin College then found her way to Boston where she met sculptor and her mentor Edward A. Brackett and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Though Lewis began creating plaster medallions in the early 1860s, it was her 1864 bust of Civil War hero Colonel Robert Shaw, who led the African American 54th Massachusetts Regiment, that brought her national prominence.
Jean-Michel Basquiat became a world-renowned Neo-Expressionist painter. After his art was featured in a group exhibit, the right people began to take notice. From there Basquiat's painting career took off, which included works displaying his crown motif, a celebration of Black power. He also used social dichotomies, appropriated text, and images, and included historical elements in his paintings to express contemporary criticisms.
James Van Der Zee would capture middle-class Black family life during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s. Taking mostly indoor portraits in a commercial studio environment, he also famously snapped Black celebrity figures. After undergoing financial difficulty starting around the 1950s, Van Der Zee experienced a second wave of popularity when the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a photographic exhibition, Harlem on My Mind, which featured his works. He eventually got back on his feet and became an in-demand photographer once again, collaborating with Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cicely Tyson, and Lou Rawls
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