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The Met's new exhibit celebrates impact and legacy of The Harlem Renaissance


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Amna Nawaz: It was an art movement that helped create a new portrait and understanding of Black life in America.

And now the Harlem Renaissance is the subject of an exhibition at one of the country's leading museums.

Jeffrey Brown reports for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Black subjects portrayed by Black artists shaping a new Black imagery and identity, it's the achievement of the confluence of people, places and diverse artistic forms collectively known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Art historian Denise Murrell.

Denise Murrell, Curator, The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism: It's this idea of the beginning of Black modernity. It was the first African American-led movement of modern art, of international modern art.

The Harlem Renaissance is the beginning of the modern Black subject that we recognize as part of who we are today.

Jeffrey Brown: Murrell is curator of The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, an exhibition of 160 paintings, sculptures and photographs, many of those by James Van Der Zee from the 1920s to 1940s, that capture the range and transformation of Black life in urban centers amid the Great Migration of millions from the South.

There are well-known figures like Aaron Douglas and Jacob Lawrence, and others such as Laura Wheeler Waring receiving overdue attention. Schoolchildren, elders, some who'd been born into slavery, queer life brought to the fore, a burgeoning middle and upper class, police brutality and protests, artists looking to both African traditions and to Europe's past and present.

Denise Murrell: They were depicting aspects of modern Black life that were not previously part of art history or of popular culture. They were making these works in direct opposition, resistance to the prevalence of racial stereotyping in the popular culture.

Jeffrey Brown: And they were doing this in a conscious -- a deliberate, conscious way.

Denise Murrell: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: We're going to tell the story of contemporary Black life.

Denise Murrell: Of our -- right, of our community, as it remakes and redefines itself.

Jeffrey Brown: Langston Hughes tapped the rhythm and vibrancy of jazz in his poems. Archibald Motley captured it in the clubs, William H. Johnson in street life Harlem.

Denise Murrell: He's creating icons. He's creating new Black icons. This is who we are and this is how we want to be seen.

Jeffrey Brown: There are cultural icons, Marian Anderson and Josephine Baker, an intellectual guiding light, Alain Locke, who wrote in his 1925 landmark book, "The New Negro": "Art must discover and reveal the beauty, which prejudice and caricature have obscured and overlaid."

Denise Murrell: He said, we will in our art, in our music, in our literature make works that reflect African American values and cultural aspirations and history and scenes of everyday life.

Jeffrey Brown: And create and shape our own identity, as opposed to being shaped.

Denise Murrell: Yes, by external, by outside forces. And, as Langston Hughes said, if other people like it, great, but if they don't like it, that's OK too.

Jeffrey Brown: Murrell is keen to expand the map of this Renaissance to other cities, the Caribbean, and to Europe, where Motley painted Parisian cafe scenes, and where Murrell wants us to see leading European painters like Matisse and Munch were themselves surrounded by and depicting Black subjects.

The exhibition highlights the contributions of historically Black colleges and universities, for a long time, the chief supporters of Black artists and repositories of their works, while mainstream museums and art history books generally treated the Harlem Renaissance as a footnote, rather than a major movement.

Murrell experienced it as a student.

Denise Murrell: It was there when you looked for it, but it wasn't there when you were, say, just getting your basic art history 101 survey. It would not have been part of those courses. So it has to be something that you are actively seeking out.

And I think that it should be something that is part of how art history is taught from the beginning.

Jeffrey Brown: In 1969, the Metropolitan Museum mounted an exhibition titled Harlem on My Mind, a social history that, controversially, included not a single painting or sculpture by a Black artist.

How do we look back at that context and then think about this?

Denise Murrell: It was a story told about Harlem by people from outside the community.

And there was a deliberate, just based on the lack of knowledge, but to some extent, probably just a deliberate conformity to the still very much segregated art world at the time. It was an example of what happens when you don't have diverse voices as part of the leadership of any institution, but especially of a museum like the Met.

And the causal factors of that, the Union soldiers are in retreat.

Jeffrey Brown: Murrell, who joined the museum in 2020, is herself part of a changing art world here at the Met and beyond. This is the first exhibition she's curated here, and she sees it not so much as a corrective to the museum's past, as a much-needed acknowledgement of the artists' achievement.

Denise Murrell: We still have a great bit more to do, but we are beginning to have people at the table who can say, OK, I'm all for doing a great show on Hopper, but we should be doing shows on William H. Johnson, on Augusta Savage, Laura Wheeler Waring, Archibald Motley, Aaron Douglas.

And that is what will ultimately allow the Met to achieve a level of excellence in its -- in the implementation, the realization of its mission to be an encyclopedic museum.

Jeffrey Brown: The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism is on through July 28.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

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