Alexandria Museum of Art celebrates the Harlem Renaissance

The Alexandria Museum of Art has partnered with the Arna Bontemps African American Museum to mount an exhibition that highlights the contributions of a native son of literary renown and his artistic peer, both of whom rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. In Aaron Douglas and Arna Bontemps: Partners in Activism, on view through at the art museum through Feb. 20, the paintings of Douglas have been paired with the writings of Bontemps, born in Alexandria in 1902. Both men were contemporaries during the 1920s when African Americans populated the northernmost blocks of Manhattan and a flourishing of black literary and musical culture emerged in the years after World War I. They later both taught at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville.  

In addition to paintings, the exhibition focuses on publications that were printed by African American organizations that sought to share the writings and art of those who were part of an emerging black creative class in the early decades of the 20th century. All of these works, in any medium, shared themes of pride, alienation, and assimilation and had a purpose to advance the cause of equality for African Americans. These publications offered African American artists and writers a public voice and they helped launch many careers. Among these publications were The Crisis, published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, published by the National Urban League.

Arna Book

Works by Aaron Douglas on view in the exhibition include: (left) The Athlete, 1959, oil on canvas board. courtesy of The Johnson Collection. (center) Illustration from Banjo: A Story Without a Plot by Claude McKay. courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution. (right) The Toiler, possibly 1937, oil or tempera on board. courtesy of The Johnson Collection.

Both Douglas and Bontemps contributed to many of these publications in their respective mediums, particularly The Crisis and Opportunity. Bontemps won poetry prizes offered by both magazines, in 1926 and 1927, around the same time that Douglas was designing their covers. Prizes and publication in periodicals helped to boost Bontemps’ writing career, which became quite prolific in a variety of genres, including poetry, novels, children’s books and biographies. Douglas’ work included powerful illustrations for novels, plays, magazines and books of poetry, as well as other publications. Many members of the Harlem Renaissance collaborated across mediums, working together to enhance each other’s work and to create collaborative publications, such as the magazine Fire!!, which a group of artists and writers began in 1926.

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Arna Bontemps, 1939. photograph by Carl Van Vechten, courtesy of The Library of Congress

Bontemps was the oldest son of bricklayer Paul Bismark Bontemps and Methodist schoolteacher Maria Carolina Pembroke. When he was three, the Bontemps family moved from Alexandria to Los Angeles, where Arna was raised, graduating from Pacific Union College in Angwin, California in 1923. After college, he began teaching in Harlem and contributing his poems to publications. In 1926, he married Alberta Johnson, with whom he had six children. Beginning in the 1930s, while teaching in Huntsville, Alabama, Bontemps expanded his writing to include fiction as well as poetry. Shortly after, he partnered with Langston Hughes, a well-known Harlem Renaissance poet, to write Popo and Fifina, a children’s book. Bontemps returned to California when Huntsville became a difficult and dangerous location for his family and beliefs. After writing multiple novels in varying subjects and genres and completing a Master’s degree in library science, Arna Bontemps was appointed librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee in 1943. He continued to write novels, poetry books, and biographies of important figures in the Harlem Renaissance throughout his career at Fisk, retiring in 1966. In 1966, he was also recognized with two honorary degrees and appointments as distinguished professor at Yale, the University of Illinois, and Fisk. Bontemps died in 1973 at 71 years of age.

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Self Portrait, Aaron Douglas, 1945. © 2015 Heirs of Aaron Douglas

Douglas was born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1899. After receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Nebraska in 1922, he taught at Lincoln High School in Kansas City for two years before moving to New York City, where he joined fellow African American artists, writers, and musicians in the Harlem Renaissance. He quickly began contributing his illustrations to major publications and magazines in the area.

In the 1930s, Douglas painted murals in Chicago, New York City, Greensboro, North Carolina, and at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. His mural series in New York City, commissioned by the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, is among his best known works, and is still a part of their permanent collection.Douglas’ illustrations and paintings focused on the lives and struggles of African Americans, using influences from the Art Deco style as well as Egyptian paintings, and often using bold silhouettes.

In the late 1930s, Douglas accepted a position at Fisk University in Nashville as an assistant professor of art education, where he founded the school’s art department and taught for almost 30 years. He continued working in art outside of his teaching at Fisk, and received an honorary Doctorate from Fisk after he retired in 1967. He died in Nashville in 1979 at the age of 79. A special service was held at Fisk, at which the president of the university at the time stated, “Aaron Douglas was one of the most accomplished of the interpreters of our institutions and cultural values. He captured the strength and quickness for the young; he translated the memories of the old; and he projected the determination of the inspired and courageous.

As an active leader in the Harlem Renaissance, however, Bontemps wrote prolifically in all genres and for children as well as adults. He produced several important collections of narratives about enslaved people and African American folk tales. Bontemps was a major anthologizer of Harlem Renaissance work and helped shape the new black writing as theoretician and critic. Contemporaries Sterling A. Brown and Aaron Douglas stated that he should have been more well-known and appreciated for his work, and Arnold Rampersad called him the “conscience of his era.”

Works from Partners in Activism are on loan from the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora at the University of Maryland, College Park; the Johnson Collection; and The National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian Institution.

Arna Bontemps flyerThe Alexandria Museum of Art will host a series of performances throughout the run of the exhibition, beginning on Saturday, January 16, at 5 p.m. when Danielle J. Kimbrough and the Shreveport/Bossier Community Performing Artists will present three short plays as part of “An Evening with Arna Bontemps.” Kimbrough, a native of New Orleans and a resident of Bossier City, conducted extensive research on the life and literary works of Arna Bontemps as part of her 2014 graduate thesis at LSU Shreveport. The academic work inspired her to write and produce the biographical sketch Meet Arna Bontemps, originally featured as a guided tour at the Arna Bontemps African American Museum, and two adaptations of Bontemps’ children’s stories, Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti and Lonesome Boy.

Popo and Fifina is a lighthearted story that was a shared writing project of Bontemps and his best friend, fellow Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes. The book was the authors’ most successful juvenile literary work, having been translated into several languages and enjoyed by children all over the world since it was published in 1932. In this delightful story, two happy siblings from Haiti experience an exciting kite battle, a dance celebration, and an encounter with a feisty goat in a tropical storm.

Lonesome Boy is an adaptation of the children’s tale by the same title published in 1955. This fable about a young jazz musician named Bubber and his passion for playing the trumpet is set in Louisiana. Bubber’s grandfather warns him to “mind where you blow that horn boy,” but he leaves his country home in Marksville to play jazz in New Orleans’ French Quarter. One frightful night, Bubber finds himself playing his trumpet at a haunted Mardi Gras ball.

On Feburary 18, 2016 the Alexandria Museum of Art will host Jackson, Mississippi-based singer Janese Lewis in a concert of varied Harlem Renaissance-era vocal selections. The concert will feature music from operas, musicals, jazz and blues, and gospel selections. She will be accompanied by Frances Nelson, a 2014 graduate of Jackson State University, who will also perform solo piano selections from the 1920s. Funding for this concert is provided by grants from the Greater Alexandria Economic Development Authority (GAEDA) and a Presenters Grant through the Louisiana Division of the Arts.

Lewis has appeared in several gala concerts and has attended an Opera Works Advanced Artist Program in Northridge, California. She has performed as a soloist in Austria, Jamaica, Grand Caymans, Dominican Republic, Italy, and Japan, as well as throughout the United States. She is on the artists roster of the Mississippi Arts Commission and has performed numerous operatic roles such as the title role in Carmen and Manon and as Maddelena in Rigoletto. She recently was featured as a soloist in Handel’s Messiah performed at Jackson State University.

The plays and concert are free to members of the Alexandria Museum of Art, members of the Arna Bontemps Museum and LSUA students. Regular admission for non-members ($5 for Adults, $4 for seniors, students, and military, and $3 for children 4 and under.) Seating is limited, however, for the February 18 concert and reservations are required. Tickets may be purchased online at www.themuseum.org. The museum is located at 933 Second Street.

For more information about the Arna Bontemps African American Museum, located at 1327 Third Street, call (318) 473-4692.

The Arna Bontemps home serves as a museum of African American history in downtown Alexandria.

The Arna Bontemps childhood home serves as a museum of African American history in downtown Alexandria. photograph by David Johnson

 

 

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