Activity - Intro. to African American Studies - Harlem Renaissance activity

W20 / W 21 Andre - AAS 201

Music and Culture

Artists of the Harlem Renaissance often created art about the music and other cultural activities, such as dance and literature, that defined their cultural landscape. 

  Take a close look at these works by Sargent Johnson and Miguel Covarrubias.

1) How do each of these works represent music visually? Think not just about what's depicted, but how it's depicted. How do the works represent the structure and experience of music visually? Put another way, what kind of musicality do you find in the works?

2) Take a long look at Sargent Johnson's Lenox Avenue. This piece could be described as a collage of cultural activities. What instruments of culture do you see in the image?

3) Lenox Avenue is the main thoroughfare in Harlem? What does that title suggest about what Sargent Johnson wanted to communicate with this piece?

4) How does his artwork relate to the cultural politics of the New Negro and the Black is Beautiful movement?

Sargent Johnson remarked about his artwork: "It is the pure American Negro I am concerned with, aiming to show the natural beauty and dignity in that characteristic lip and that characteristic hair, bearing and manner; and I wish to show that beauty not so much to the white man as to the Negro himself." 

5) Listen to Duke Ellington's Drop Me Off at Harlem (1933). Put the song and the Johnson artwork in dialogue with one another for a few sentences. This is an open question with no right answers. Does listening to the song bring up any new observations about the artwork? Does looking at the artwork while listening to the song bring up any thoughts? 

6) In addition to being a visual artist, Miguel Covarrubias was a costume and set designer who among other projects worked on Josephine Baker's La Revue Negre tour in Europe. Read about Covarrubias. How does he represent the transnationalism of this movement?

7) How does his artwork visually represent music and dance? If we didn't have the title, what kind of music would the image conjure for you?

8) When you look at the image, whom do you get the impression the dancers and musicians are performing for? What does it look like their motivation for performing might be?

This video demonstrates some of the Afro-Cuban folk music and dance that later influenced the formation of Afro-Cuban jazz.

Click here to hear an example of the Afro-Cuban jazz that was immensely popular in the late 30s and 40s.


People and Place 

Artists also used their work to spotlight the people and the place of Harlem, specifically showing viewers the prosperity, community, and family life that people made for themselves there.


 Look at these works by Jacob Lawrence and James Van der Zee.

9) What does each of them show the viewer about life in Harlem?

10) How did a work like van der Zee's photo and Lawrence's The Builders defy stereotypes?

11) Look closely at the representation of race, class, and gender in The Builders. The more one looks, the more it appears that Lawrence has something complex to say.  What speculations do you have about these factors in this work? It might provide some focus to consider the depictions of the children, the parents, and their interaction with the surroundings. 



African-American Modernism and Afro-Futurism

 Compare Romare Bearden's depiction of Salome with the head of John the Baptist  to that of Andrea Solari, a 16th-century that is broadly representative of the way this biblical scene was represented in Europe for centuries.

12) How could we describe Bearden's depiction as an instance of African-American modernism? What visual elements and traditions did he draw upon to make this depiction?

13) How does Bearden's recasting of the past and of religious tradition into a new form of visuality connect to the project of Afro-futurism? How does a work that looks at the past like Salome envision a new kind of future?

This is an abstract face of a figure looking to the right. The head is divided into compartments of varying textures by several straight lines. There are piano keys are on the left side of the head, and a cigarette at top left. 
Sargent Claude Johnson
Lenox Avenue
lithograph on paper
12 ½ in x 8 9/16 in (31.75 cm x 21.75 cm)
Allocated by the U.S. Government Commissioned through the New Deal art projects
This print shows two figures dancing in front of three musicians by the water with a moon in the sky and reflected in the water. A far away seaside fort is visible in the upper left corner. 
Miguel Covarrubias
Afro-Cuban Dancers and Percussionists
lithograph on paper
9 1/4 in x 13 1/2 in (23.5 cm x 34.29 cm);11 15/16 in x 16 1/16 in (30.32 cm x 40.8 cm);22 1/16 in x 28 1/8 in (56.04 cm x 71.44 cm)
Museum Purchase
Eight male figures (three kneeling in front and five standing in back) wearing orange tank tops and white shorts face the viewer; two basketballs and five trophies between figures in the foreground. Figures stand in front of a background of fragmented, arched and circular areas of color in blues and golds.
Jacob Lawrence
tempera over black colored pencil on wood board
19 13/16 in x 24 in (50.32 cm x 60.96 cm);18 1/8 in x 9 3/8 in (46.04 cm x 23.81 cm)
Gift of Dr. James and Vivian Curtis
This is a photograph of an African American couple. A man sits inside his car, while a woman stands just outside, as if she is about to sit in the passenger seat. They both wear large raccoon coats. 
James Van Der Zee
The Couple in Raccoon Coats
gelatin silver print on paper
16 in x 17 in (40.64 cm x 43.18 cm)
Gift of the Estate of James van Sweden
The color screenprint depicts four dark skinned figures walking past a construction site—likely a family. The man is dressed in a black suit, black shoes, yellow tie, and tan hat. The woman wears a red and white dress, yellow jacket, and red cap. The little girl stands to the left of mother, holding her hand. She wears a yellow dress, white tights, brown shoes, and a red cap. A small boy wears brown pants, tan shoes, a yellow shirt, and blue jacket. He stands to the right of the father and holds his hand.  <br /><br />
In the background, there are three men working at the construction site. There are two men in blue jumpsuits, one has dark skin and the other white. A third dark skinned man wears a gray jumpsuit and holds a saw. The print is signed and dated (l.r.) "Jacob Lawrence 1974" in pencil.
Jacob Lawrence
Builders (The Family)
screenprint on paper
34 in x 25 3/4 in (86.36 cm x 65.41 cm);29 15/16 in x 22 1/8 in (76.04 cm x 56.2 cm);38 3/4 in x 28 in (98.43 cm x 71.12 cm)
Gift of Dr. James and Vivian Curtis
Four people are gathered around a white table in the foreground. A nude woman on the right holds the head of a man on a gray platter. The man&#39;s body is in the bottom right corner of the print with a red trail at the neck. Across from the woman is a man in a red garmet with black and yellow stripes, and a tan cap with a red and blue stripe. Across the table are two other figures and in the background to the right stand two men in blue, much smaller than the figures around the table.
Romare Bearden
Salome (John the Baptist)
screenprint on paper
8 9/16 in x 10 15/16 in (21.7 cm x 27.8 cm)
Gift of the Lannan Foundation in Honor of the Pelham Family

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist - Andrea Solari (ca. 1507-1509)


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