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African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde

November 27, 2012–September 2, 2013

The Blondiau-Theatre Arts Collection and the Harlem Renaissance

"Nothing is more galvanizing than the sense of a cultural past. This at least the intelligent presentation of African art will supply to us."
—Alain LeRoy Locke, "Note on African Art," 1924

During the 1920s, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and other northern cities witnessed a cultural revolution that found expression in theater, music, fine art, and literature, among other art forms. This surge of creative energy, commonly known as the Harlem Renaissance, was spurred in part by the massive migration of African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North; from a sense of enhanced pride following the involvement of black infantry battalions in World War I; and from increased access to education. Such heightened integration into American cultural life fostered pride in cultural identity while helping to unite communities.

Chief among the movement's intelligentsia was the philosopher Alain LeRoy Locke, the influential editor of the 1925 anthology The New Negro. Locke championed the merits of African sculpture and sought to stimulate African American artists' awareness of what he called "our ancestral arts." While studying in Europe during the 1910s, he had learned of African art's impact on modernism, leading him to believe that, by drawing from their heritage, African American artists could access a new world of artistic innovations. While Locke's perspective was later decried for its validation of the conviction that African art needed to be "discovered" by the West to exist, and that African American artists needed to follow the path opened by European modernists to create great art, it nonetheless powerfully impacted an entire generation.

To provide artists with study material, Locke, assisted by the magazine Theatre Arts Monthly, secured about one thousand African works from the collection of the Brussels-based amateur Raoul Blondiau. As Locke had hoped, his promotion of these works triggered responses from African American artists.