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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, March 30, 2003

Museum Exhibit Explores African-American Artists

Recently, my younger son, Brian, and I attended an exhibit of African-American art at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was an enlightening experience because neither of us knew much about art by black artists.

In previous visits to different museums, we did not remember seeing very many examples nor had it been discussed much in surveys of art history. Yet we found out that African-American art has a long and distinguished history.The exhibit proved to be one of the best we had ever visited. I decided to read more books on the subject, and I share them here with you.

African-Americans in Art: Selections from the Art Institute of Chicago (The Art Institute, 1999)

The museum used this book as the catalog for the exhibition. Most of the exhibited works are pictured and discussed here.

Essays by members of the museum staff discuss the institute's striking daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass; the powerful work of Chicago sculptor Marion Perkins; the impressive paintings of Archibald Motley (a figure of the Harlem Renaissance); and a portfolio of works by African-American artists in the museum's collection.

Reaches of the Heart: A Loving Look at the Artist Charles White by Frances Barrett White (Barricade, 1994)

My son's favorite artist in the exhibit was someone we had never heard of. His name is Charles White.

White's favorite media were charcoal and pencil, and many of his works picture heroic African-Americans, both famous and anonymous.

White was born in Chicago in 1918. When he was a boy, his mother would drop him off at the downtown public library on her way to work. He drew the inspiration to draw from the library's picture books and illustrated classics.

His first painting was done on one of his mother's living-room curtains because he could not afford to buy canvas. His mother was angry, but she treasured this painting for the rest of her life.

The author, Frances White, was Charles White's Caucasian wife. They met at the Worker's Children Camp in New York state, where Charles was the volunteer director of the art program, and she was a camp counselor.

This memoir is an inspirational love story as well as an introduction to a great artist and good man.

Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners and the Great Migration by James R. Grossman (University of Chicago, 1989)

White's mother, like many of the parents of the African-American artists who came of age during the Depression, had migrated from the South. This movement of people to the North was called the Great Migration. From 1910 to 1920, almost 60,000 African-Americans moved to Chicago from the South.

There were several reasons for them leaving home. Jobs were opening up in Chicago because during World War I, the supply of European immigrants was drying up, and the stockyards and steel mills needed workers.

In addition, Southern blacks were tired of living under white supremacy and an economic system of tenant farming that prevented them from getting ahead.

Another important factor was the influence of the immensely popular black newspaper The Chicago Defender. Along with sensationalistic stories publicizing discrimination against African-Americans, including lynchings, the paper tirelessly promoted Chicago as the Promised Land for Southern blacks.

African-American Art by Sharon F. Patton (Oxford, 1998).

If you want to become better-acquainted with African-American art, this book is a good place to start.

Patton combines art criticism with lots of history in a readable style. She makes this great body of neglected work come alive.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.