Public Media Arts Hub

The Harlem Renaissance's cultural explosion, in photographs


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: At the turn of the last century, African-Americans from across the country flooded New York City's Harlem neighborhood, leading to a cultural explosion of books, poetry, music and art that is now collectively known as the Harlem Renaissance.

As special correspondent Jared Bowen from WGBH in Boston reports, a photography exhibit now traces the evolution of one of the nation's most recognized neighborhoods as it continues to evolve today.

It's part of our series on arts and culture, Canvas.

Jared Bowen: The 19-teens saw the start of the Great Migration, when millions of African-Americans moved away from the South, many to the North, and to Harlem, which became an oasis from oppression, especially for artists.

Stephanie Sparling Williams is the exhibition's curator.

Stephanie Sparling Williams: The art was important then in creating a new visual lexicon for African-Americans against histories of dehumanizing and degrading stereotypes and imagery in the American popular imagination.

Jared Bowen: At the Addison Gallery of American Art, we find representation of nearly 100 years of life in Harlem, mostly in photographs from the museum's collection. The show takes us from the 1930s, just after the Harlem Renaissance, to today.

Stephanie Sparling Williams: I see vibrance. I see a people who have been through so much and were given so little and have made this out of it, this miraculous -- this place. A lot of people describe Harlem as a cultural mecca.

This is where a lot of the socializing happened, was out on street corners or in front of shops.

Jared Bowen: The Harlem of the 1930s was a place reeling from the Great Depression. And Williams sees in the work of both black and white photographers a place of fortune and despair.

Stephanie Sparling Williams: You see a tension between Harlem's working class, the unemployed, and then also Harlem's upper and middle class citizens, stuck within Harlem, but all trying to pick up the pieces.

Jared Bowen: By the 1960s, Harlem had become a hotbed of protest in America, fueled in large part by its community of artists, says Judith Dolkart, the Addison's director.

Judith Dolkart: I always see artists as active agents in the culture. So artists have the ability to change the culture as much as anyone else. They have a point of view, and they are putting that point of view out there.

Jared Bowen: In the 1960s, '70s and '80s, Harlem's streets were host to civil rights marches and later black power rallies. It brought an energy that Williams says courses through these photographs.

Stephanie Sparling Williams: I describe it as a buzz, the sound when you get off the subway of just people in the streets. And I think that's captured throughout the exhibition, not only the built environment and people, but how both come together to create the social life of Harlem, the lifeblood of the neighborhood itself.

Jared Bowen: Today, Harlem tells a different story, the result of gentrification. A way of life is changing, as it always has, but now so are Harlem's people.

Stephanie Sparling Williams: It comes into sharp focus through Dawoud Bey's series Harlem Redux, which he shot in 2016 when we see the development, the construction. We see the different ways in which space is being claimed by other bodies, particularly white bodies.

Jared Bowen: The show ends on an epic piece by Kehinde Wiley, who created this instantly famous portrait of President Barack Obama. The subject, regal and wielding a sword, on his equally mighty horse, was straight off 125th street in Harlem.

Stephanie Sparling Williams: It's carrying along this tradition of self-determined imagery, but also there's a tension, right, this tension between the art historical canon, this genre that African-Americans would never find themselves in -- the black body was never portrayed in these heroic paintings that depicted valor and masculinity and virility often.

But Wiley shows us that black the black figure is no less powerful, no less masculine.

Jared Bowen: And, instead, there is glory in a neighborhood that has long encouraged that in its residents.

For the "PBS NewsHour" I'm Jared Bowen of WGBH in Boston.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.