Art Review | I, Too, Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100
As celebrations go, I, Too, Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100 pulls out all the stops. Like any centennial celebration worth its salt, I, Too… features music, dancing, ceremonies, speeches and parades — and that’s just in the artwork.
Look beyond the walls of the Columbus Museum of Art, and you’ll find that our city’s celebration of the Harlem Renaissance centenary is a community-wide undertaking. Thanks to the Cbusharlem100 initiative, central Ohioans can enjoy a wide range of Harlem Renaissance-related social and cultural events throughout the year.
Given the variety of programming, I,Too… at the Columbus Museum of Art should be the first stop for anyone looking to gain a better understanding of this groundbreaking movement in American history. This opportunity is thanks in large part to guest curator and noted scholar/author/journalist Wil Haygood (The Butler: A Witness to History; Tigerland: 1968-1969: A City Divided, A Nation Torn Apart, and a Magical Season of Healing). Haygood approaches the task of presenting the Harlem Renaissance with rigor, nuance and a journalist’s eye for telling the whole story.
The resulting exhibition is multi-faceted, demonstrating from all angles the breadth and depth of the Harlem Renaissance. Employing a wide range of mediums (including books, magazines, posters, photographs, and sound recordings), I, Too… is particularly effective at drawing links between varying artistic disciplines and tying them directly to the social and cultural landscapes they both documented and disturbed.
This is no small feat. The Harlem Renaissance, despite it’s relative geographic and temporal specificity, was not a homogeneous movement; not in concept, and not in execution. Langston Hughes’ famous essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” suggests that even at the height of the movement, there existed no unifying theory for the creation and constitution of an African American art. If contemporary principals like Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes couldn’t agree on the role race might play in art, who could?
Of course, any expectation of lockstep unity is both unrealistic and unfair, particularly when we’re talking about the act of creation. At the end of the day, art is created by individuals who are making sense of their world and their experiences in it. It is in this ability to highlight individual voices and experiences that I, Too… sings.
Wil Haygood must know this too. I, Too, Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100 is so full of colorful stories, so rich with personal experiences, so expansive in its cast, that the galleries hum with a hundred voices at once. It’s a rousing chorus, and one made all the more compelling by the inclusion of period photographs documenting the lives and experiences of African Americans in the early 20th century.
Palmer Hayden’s The Subway is of particular note in this regard. The painting presents a very specific moment while also managing to serve as a locus for the events and themes that launched the Harlem Renaissance. In The Subway, we see a central figure whose full-frontal stance and direct gaze provide a visual affirmation of Langston Hughes’ assertion that “I am the darker brother…I’ll be at the table.” Over that central figure’s right shoulder is a second African American man, this one wearing a military garrison cap. Together, these figures (depicted in this quintessentially urban environment) point to the roles that African American military service and the Great Migration played in the origins of the Harlem Renaissance.
Whether it’s at the table, on the subway, in the army or anywhere else, I, Too… provides vivid reminders that the African American experience has always been both part of and separate from the experience of white America. Reminders of these divergent narratives (and the inequities supported therein) appear again and again.
Edmund Archer’s Howard Patterson of the “Harlem Yankees,” offers a portrait of Patterson during his time in The Black League, a semi-professional league for African American basketball players. Malvin Gray Johnson’s Elks Marching depicts a common site in Harlem as members of the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks march in their annual parade. As to the name, the “Improved Elks” were made necessary by the fact that the original Elks were (and remained for a very long time), a whites only fraternal order.
Which isn’t to say race is the only story. I, Too, Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100 provides a refreshing view of a period of pronounced artistic innovation and exploration. It was a time of competing artistic movements and interdisciplinary experimentation. The graphic woodblock prints of Aaron Douglas and Mask of a Girl by Sargent Johnson offer striking examples of modernism between the wars. Norman Lewis’ Jumping Jive brings together the loose brushwork and unresolved color fields of an artist on the cusp of abstraction. Gamin, by Augusta Savage, pulls Social Realism into three dimensions with a nuanced bust depicting vulnerability and resilience.
I, Too… is an exhibition that’s varied, sprawling and eclectic, to be sure. So was the Harlem Renaissance. That comes as no surprise to anyone who’s ever scratched the surface of watershed movements in history. They’re rarely as neat and orderly as the retellings would have us believe. Wil Haygood and the organizers of I, Too, Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100 recognize this. To their credit, they embrace it. They celebrate it. In doing so, they provide a panoramic view of an era that reverberates and resonates to this day. I, Too… does indeed sing, and in doing so, it lifts every voice with it.
I, Too, Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100 is currently on view at the Columbus Museum of Art through January 20, 2019.
For more information visit columbusmuseum.org.