200 Years of African American Art
by Marc Londo
Horace Pippin saw the best and the worst of humanity. As a member of Harlem’s Hell Fighters, Pippin witnessed his friends die on foreign soil and had his right arm mangled when he was shot in the foray alongside them while stationed in France during World War 1. Still a young man of 31 at the time of his discharge, Pippin was severely impaired and left rationalizing the sacrifices he made for a country that wouldn’t fully recognize his humanity. His reflections haunted him. But through the use of a poker to hold up his right arm, he overcame his limitations to become a renowned African American artist.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s "Represent: 200 Years of African American Art" exhibit houses Pippin’s work, as well as more than 75 works from other prominent African American artists. It features many recognizable names such as Jacob Lawrence, Alma Thomas, Martin Puryear, Carrie Mae Weems, and Henry Ossawa Tanner, whose 1898 painting “The Annunciation” was the first piece by an African American artist to be acquired by a major American museum. Like Pippin, these artists had their own struggles, and they reflected on them by boldly chronicling their insights in a variety of mediums. The numerous ways through which these artists honed their vision offer fantastic illustrations of the socio-cultural environment of their generation. For instance, Pippin’s “Mr. Prejudice” (1943) speaks to the frustration of successful African Americans having their lives sabotaged by institutional racism. At the time Pippin painted the piece, the movement within the African American community referred to as the “Double V” campaign was seeking victory at home and abroad for African Americans. Black leaders were growing impatient over racist practices at home while sending their sons to die for the freedoms of others overseas.
“Mr. Prejudice” presents a powerful narrative of the black and white racial divide in America, as the white workers are shown hammering victory away from African Americans. The piece makes a strong statement on the insecurities of the White America, who saw themselves as superior to African Americans strictly on the basis of their skin tone. Pippin’s painting is a great illustration of the insecurity that girds institutional racism, literally right under the nose of Lady Liberty. The antagonistic forces of oppression in every corner of society is resoundingly felt throughout the exhibition.
“Represent: 200 Years of African American Art” effectively merges the museum’s African American holdings. By clustering various pieces that deal with similar periods and themes, the exhibit bridges the many artistic dialects that contribute to a broader discussion on the African American experience. African Americans are a diverse group of people with unique histories and influences from various locations (Africa, the Caribbean, and all across the United States). These dynamic influences are brought together in the show, both in the real and the abstract.
For more information on PMOCA (Philadelphia Museum of Art): www.philamoca.org/