Beyond the Blues: Reflections of African America in the Fine Arts Collection of the Amistad Research Center Presented by the New Orleans Museum of Art

The Amistad Research Center, located on the Tulane University campus, is the nation’s largest independent archive specializing in the history of African Americans and other minority ethnic groups. A lesser known aspect of the Center is its extraordinary collection of fine art dating from the nineteenth century to the present day.

Beyond the Blues: Reflections of African America in the Fine Arts Collection of the Amistad Research Center, presented by the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Amistad Research Center, marks a long overdue public access to these remarkable works of art. On view at NOMA through July 11, 2010, the exhibition will feature nearly 150 works including paintings, prints, and sculpture, as well as archival materials such as letters and sketchbooks, providing a fascinating glimpse of the artistic process. Like the Collection itself, the exhibition is a map that charts change in American visual arts while highlighting African American connections passed, like a baton, over the course of a century from one generation to the next.

Given the considerable obstacles faced by most of the artists en route to public recognition, the outpouring of creativity and imagination showcased in Beyond the Blues is evidence of enormous perseverance and personal determination. Painters like Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) and Edward Bannister (1828-1901) who made a living as artists around the turn of the nineteenth century were exceptions in their time. These men, while conscious of race, did not create particularly race-conscious art; rather, their work merged seamlessly with accepted thematic and aesthetic trends. They were among the few who gained access to formal art education or were able to apprentice in the atelier of a seasoned artist, as was the case for sculptor Edmonia Lewis (circa 1845-1911) in Rome. With the intensification of the New Negro movement in the 1920s, visual artists gained status as professional champions of racial uplift because of their ability to literally challenge black stereotyping with their art. As the visibility of and respect for art professions grew, so did their ranks. Sculptors like Richmond Barthé (1901-1989) literally transformed the poor black Shoeshine Boy into a high art subject worth placing on a pedestal. When Barthé was a student at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1924 through 1928, he was the only African American enrolled in the fine art program. The graphic arts held greater promise for employment, but when Ellis Wilson (1899-1977) completed the Art Institute’s commercial art program around the same time as Barthé, his dark skin made it difficult to find work using his hard-earned skills. Settled in Manhattan, Wilson ended up an apartment building superintendent, painting lively reflections of black life at every opportunity. A small percentage of visual artists achieve fame and fortune. The choice to work against such odds is made by men and women who recognize that making art is their best contribution to society.

Beyond the Blues is anchored by traditional fine art categories—portraiture, landscape, and genre—favored here by a varied cross-section of artists who used their talent to reflect on African America. The variety of methods that span generations and yet express like-minded sentiments is stunning. Within each category, four themes surfaced: “Seeing with Candor,” “Inhabiting Our World,” “Living in the Moment,” and “Believing in Divinity.” Across these themes runs a current of experiences that create a contextual and aesthetic flow uniting the entire Amistad Research Center Fine Arts Collection.

New Orleans Museum of Art, One Collins C. Diboll Circle, City Park, New Orleans, Louisiana 70124