African American Art: Migration and Modernism

February 7, 2018

In 1940 and 1941, Jacob Lawrence produced a series of 60 paintings called the Migration Series. These paintings documented the Great Migration, an influx of African Americans from the rural South into northern cities during the first half of the 20th century. Lawrence completed the series when he was only 23 years old and the importance of his project was appreciated immediately. Within months, the works were purchased by leading museums and Lawrence soon became the nation’s most successful Black artist.

The Migration panels enumerate the reasons that African Americans fled the South including poverty, lack of education, and widespread lynching, Lawrence depicted what the migrants encountered as they moved including labor unrest, discrimination, and tenement housing, as well as industrial jobs, improved living conditions, and the freedom to vote. Lawrence’s screen print, The 1920’s… The Migrants Arrive and Cast Their Ballots, revisits panel 59 of the Migration Series, which shows migrants waiting patiently at a polling place. Produced in 1975 for a portfolio honoring the American Bicentennial, the print has a decidedly upbeat energy with its bright colors and groups of figures interacting. The original painting, captioned “In the North they had the freedom to vote” (now in the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC,) was more subdued.

The Great Migration profoundly impacted American arts and culture, as more individuals concentrated in urban areas where artistic training was available. This lead to sustained African American cultural movements like the Harlem Renaissance. Black artists also developed vibrant artistic communities in Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities. And African Americans created influential university art departments—notably at historically black colleges like Fisk, Spelman, and Talladega—and participated in every major modern art movement. The child of parents who had migrated north, Lawrence witnessed the blossoming of African American culture during his youth in Harlem where he studied with Charles Alston and Henry Bannarn and found support from the sculptor Augusta Savage. Surrounded by modern artists in New York, Lawrence developed a style featuring blocky, angular shapes and flat colors that presented a distinctly modern take on narrative painting. During his long career, Lawrence inspired generations of American artists.

This spring, the Delaware Art Museum is celebrating African American art by sponsoring performances by Step Afrika! based on Lawrence’s Migration Series. We are also spotlighting the work of Black artists in our gallery dedicated to modern art. The paintings, prints, photographs, and sculptures on view celebrate the rich legacy of African American modernism between the 1920s and the 1970s. Alongside Lawrence’s prints, the installation features favorites by Romare Bearden, Aaron Douglas, Norman Lewis, and Edward Loper Sr., as well as recently acquired examples by Humbert Howard, Malvin Gray Johnson, Robert Neal, and Beulah Ecton Woodard. The works were created by artists working from Wilmington to Los Angeles and were collected by the Museum between 1937 and 2017.

Heather Campbell Coyle
Chief Curator and Curator of American Art

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