The Souls of Black Art - the Spirit Creative

An Overview of the History of African American Art
and Black Artists - Series 1, Part 1.

Written by Kamau Austin and Edited by Carol Austin

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Bearing Witness: Contemporary Works
by African Women Women Artists

by Editors:
Jon Tyle Theresa Robinson
Maya Angelou
Joyntyle Theresa Robinson
Tritobia Hayes Benjamin




















Black Art and Culture in the
20th Century (World of Art)

by Richard J. Powell

















Africa, of course is the birth place and motherland of African Art, and therefore, has left its indelible stamp on its descendants Black art and/or African American art.

In Africa - a land burning with the creative fire of artistic expression - the individual artist is, in a sense, invisible.

Whether rendered for the eye or performed for all the senses, traditional African art reflects instead the ways of the community.

Art in Africa is made to capture the beliefs - philosophy - and history of their respective communities. Skilled artisans in gold, bronze, wood, ivy, and beads created awe inspiring sacred objects to help community practice its rituals and religions.

Source: Creative Fire, the Tradition of African Art, 1994, Time Life Books

African art, because of its symbolic nature, has a tendency to be inclined more towards abstraction. African abstraction has even influenced the western Modernist Art movement. This contributed to the break between modern art and the western realism Tradition. Within this historical art context, early Black art and African American Art tended to focus on realism and portraiture. Many times the subject matter of early African American artists was of white life and personalities. This is of course understandable because, they wanted to achieve some measure of Euro-American acceptance.

This tension of exploring and expressing the richness of African and Black culture, via abstract or symbolic art, over against the impulse or need to gain Euro-American acceptance, by mastering western art traditions like realism, represents the most provocative prism to discuss Black art or African American Art. We will cover artists from both parts of the equation, in the following series of writings and their historic and social significance. Furthermore We will examine opines from the important art critics of importance in relation to Black art like W.E.B. Dubois and Alaine Locke, Jr.

"The Development of African American Art or Black Art from Limning"

One of the original Art craft traditions that blacks were allowed to practice in the U.S. was limning. Limning initially was consigned to the painting of signs and houses. Limning originally was a Medieval and now archaic term for a manuscript Illuminator started in about the 11th century. It first indicated to portray words with paint and was first used by learned monks and scribes as well as the 17th and 18th century New England Folk Artists.

The term began to be used for portrait miniaturists like Nicholas Hillard, a notable European portrait painter, who wrote a treatise entitled the "Arte of Limning". Limning as a portrait or painting art, was usually done in watercolors, and a two dimensional style with little or no shading and 3D type photo-realism. In colonial North America limner refers to self-trained, often unknown, portrait painters.

According to the book Creative Fire "By the time of the Civil War, blacks made up most of the artisan labor force of the south." Later those who where involved in limning began to paint pictures (to the chagrin of many of the white thinkers of the time, who felt blacks lacked the intellectual capacity for high culture). Portraiture by black artists called limners was not considered art but a trade.

"Black Art and African American Art
Moves beyond Limning"

In the 18th century and a good deal of the 19th century, however, limning was as far as most African American painters were able to go. Black artists who wanted to establish themselves as artists were typically refused entry into period academies or professional groups. This period could probably be pointed to as the nascent period of the black art or African American art painting tradition. A number of African American artist even had to travel into Europe especially France to learn - practice and develop their art.

While many black artists, given the racist climate of the time, wanted to be accepted in the white world, some begun working on black subjects and themes. Almost all early black artists relied on "sympathetic" whites, many of whom were abolitionists, to give them training and patron support. The birth of black art or African American art was rooted in the throes of this challenging historical period of slavery and the subsequent Civil War.

Scipio Moorhead, one of the earliest Black Artists to do African American Art is credited with painting Phillis Wheatley

As early as the 1770's, slave and free black artists were appearing in newspaper advertisements. One of the artists during this period was Scipio Moorhead, who is believed to have painted a portrait of the celebrated ex-slave poet Phillis Wheatley. His painting was later reproduced as a copperplate engraving. Wheatley remembered Moorhead in a 1773 dedication of one of her poems with the following Quote " to S.M., a young African painter, on seeing his works."

Joshua Johnson, the 1st recognized Black Artist to gain professional recognition

Joshua Johnson, was the first limner who was free, to gain professional recognition as a portrait painter. The details of his life are sketchy. What is known of him is that he started his art career in Baltimore in 1796, as a portrait painter. Many of the prominent families had portraits created by him until 1824. He attracted many of his upper class clients from word of mouth. In 1798 in one recorded ad in the Baltimore Intelligencer he referred to himself as a "self taught genius."

Johnson's paintings were mostly of elite white families although, he did make 3 paintings of blacks. Ironically, no image of the black artist exists. However, 120 paintings are owned by museums and private collectors today.

"Julien Hudson, the First African American
Artist that does a Self Portrait"

Julien Hudson, is the first black portraitist who ....

to read part 2 on the history of Black art and African American Art click here

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