Organizing and activism in Reflections

African American artists in the early to mid-19th century were often concerned with the question of how African Americans should be represented in artwork. Below, we take a look at a few of these artists on display in Reflections: African American Life from the Myrna Colley-Lee Collection.

James Van Der Zee

Silver gelatin prints by James Van Der Zee. Left: Barefoot Prophet, 1929. Top right: Untitled, 1927. Bottom right: Untitled, 1931. All images from the Myrna Colley-Lee Collection.

Silver gelatin prints by James Van Der Zee. Left: Barefoot Prophet, 1929. Top right: Untitled, 1927. Bottom right: Untitled, 1931. All images from the Myrna Colley-Lee Collection.

The New Negro Movement during the Harlem Renaissance suggested positive, figurative images should be the focus of African American art. Many James Van Der Zee photographs present educated, middle class African Americans to align with this idea.

Learn more about Van Der Zee here.

All linocuts by Elizabeth Catlett. Left: In Harriet Tubman I helped hundreds to freedom (from the Negro Woman series), 1946–1947, 1975 edition. Top right: In Phillis Wheatley I proved intellectual equality in the midst of slavery (from the Negro Woman series), 1946–1947, 1981 edition. Bottom Right: In Sojouner Truth I fought for the rights of women as well as Negroes (from the Negro Woman series), 1946–1947, 1989 edition.

All linocuts by Elizabeth Catlett. Left: In Harriet Tubman I helped hundreds to freedom (from the Negro Woman series), 1946–1947, 1975 edition. Top right: In Phillis Wheatley I proved intellectual equality in the midst of slavery (from the Negro Woman series), 1946–1947, 1981 edition. Bottom Right: In Sojouner Truth I fought for the rights of women as well as Negroes (from the Negro Woman series), 1946–1947, 1989 edition.

Elizabeth Catlett

Elizabeth Catlett was prominent activist, organizer, intellectual, and artist. She moved to Mexico to work alongside socialist artists like Diego Rivera and focused on representing “the people.” 

A leading voice in the Black Arts Movement, she delivered her influential “The Negro People and American Art at Mid-Century” in 1961 to the Third National Conference of Negro Artists; Catlett delivered this speech again over the phone (due to political exile from the U.S.) to the National Conference on the Functional Aspects of Black Arts in 1970.

Three linocuts by Hale Woodruff. Left: Sunday Promenade, 1935, 1996 restrike. Top right: African Headdress, 1935, 1996 restrike. Bottom right: Trusty on a Mule, 1939, 1996 restrike. All courtesy Myrna Colley-Lee Collection.

Three linocuts by Hale Woodruff. Left: Sunday Promenade, 1935, 1996 restrike. Top right: African Headdress, 1935, 1996 restrike. Bottom right: Trusty on a Mule, 1939, 1996 restrike. All courtesy Myrna Colley-Lee Collection.

Spiral

New York-based artists Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, and Hale Woodruff (Bearden and Woodruff were both born in the South, but based in NY.) formed the artist collective Spiral. 

Lewis asked, “Is there a Negro image?” Bearden thought the group might work together to answer this question collaboratively through collage. In the end, no one agreed on one aesthetic, but Bearden grew his collage practice. Lewis became a respected abstract artist, while many Black artists continued to focus on the figurative. 

Reflections is currently on view at LSU MOA through October 1. See the exhibition with free admission Saturday, September 23 during Museum Day Live! and Sunday, October 1 during Free First Sunday.

Reflections is organized by International Arts & Artists, Washington, DC, in collaboration with the office of Myrna Colley-Lee.