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The Met’s new exhibit celebrates the Harlem Renaissance

todayMarch 4, 2024

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“Black Belt,” by Archibald J. Motley Jr., is being lent by the Hampton University Museum.Credit…Estate of Archibald John Motley Jr., via Bridgeman Images

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City hosts a monumental exhibition titled “The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism,” from February 25 through July 28, 2024. This exhibition marks a significant exploration into the Harlem Renaissance, showcasing around 160 works that delve into the multifaceted ways Black artists depicted the modern life of African Americans during the 1920s to 1940s. This period was crucial as it coincided with the Great Migration, when millions of African Americans moved from the rural South to urban centers like Harlem in New York City and Chicago’s South Side, seeking a new beginning away from the segregated South.

This exhibition is the first comprehensive survey of the Harlem Renaissance in New York City since 1987. It aims to establish the Harlem Renaissance not just as a pivotal African-American-led movement in international modern art but also to highlight the central role of Black artists in portraying the modern Black subject within the broader context of international modern art and life. The exhibition has been made possible by supporting various foundations and corporations, including the Ford Foundation, the Barrie A. and Deedee Wigmore Foundation, Denise Littlefield Sobel, and Bank of America.

A significant portion of the artworks on display comes from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) collections, such as Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, Fisk University Galleries, Hampton University Art Museum, and Howard University Gallery of Art. Other major contributors include the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and loans from significant private collections and European museums.

The exhibition is curated by Denise Murrell, The Met’s Merryl H. and James S. Tisch Curator at Large, who emphasize the Harlem Renaissance’s role in portraying modern Black life and culture. The exhibition also explores the international connections of these artists, who spent time abroad and were part of European multiethnic artistic circles, contributing to the development of transatlantic modern art.

The Harlem Renaissance was a vibrant cultural, social, and artistic explosion in Harlem, New York, during the early 20th century. It was a period where African American writers, artists, musicians, and thinkers sought to redefine the Black experience in America, challenging the prevailing racial stereotypes and showcasing the intellectual and cultural achievements of the Black community. Central figures of this movement included Alain Locke, W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and James Weldon Johnson, among others.

In addition to the exhibition, The Met is launching a five-episode podcast, the first of its kind created specifically for an exhibition. Hosted by writer and critic Jessica Lynne, the podcast will delve into various aspects of the Harlem Renaissance, featuring discussions on fashion, portraiture, leisure, and nightlife, with contributions from notable guests such as Robin Givhan, John Keene, Jordan Casteel, Carl Phillips, and Christian McBride. This podcast, produced in collaboration with Audacy’s Pineapple Street Studios and supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, aims to provide a comprehensive narrative of the Harlem Renaissance and its lasting impact on global art and culture.

In conjunction with the groundbreaking exhibition “The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, a comprehensive and enlightening book has been published, edited by Denise Murrell, the Merryl H. and James S. Tisch Curator at Large at The Met. This scholarly volume reexamines the Harlem Renaissance as a localized cultural explosion in Upper Manhattan and a significant chapter in a global narrative of Black creativity and expression. It traces the movement’s roots back to the New Negro theories and aesthetics articulated by Alain Locke, its founding philosopher, and further enriched by the contributions of W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston.

The book meticulously explores the works of pivotal artists such as Aaron Douglas, Charles Henry Alston, Augusta Savage, and William H. Johnson, who ingeniously blended the expressive figuration of the European avant-garde with African sculpture and folk art aesthetics to depict the multifaceted aspects of African American city life. Additionally, it shines a light on lesser-known artists like Laura Wheeler Waring and Samuel Joseph Brown, Jr., who adopted a more classical approach to portraying Black subjects with dignity and depth. The publication also ventures beyond the American context to place the Harlem Renaissance within a broader international panorama, examining the works of New Negro artists active abroad alongside those of their European and international African diasporan peers, including figures like Germaine Casse, Ronald Moody, Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch, and Pablo Picasso.

The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism exhibition at The Met not only celebrates the groundbreaking contributions of Black artists during this pivotal period but also underscores the enduring influence of the Harlem Renaissance on the development of modern art and culture. Through this exhibition and its accompanying podcast, The Met offers a profound exploration of the Harlem Renaissance, inviting visitors to engage with this transformative movement’s rich history and legacy.


Written by: Tarik Moody

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