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Let My People Go
by Aaron Douglas
ca. 1935–39
Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 2015
Episode 11 / 2015
Featured Work

...a powerful allegory of liberation and enlightenment, one that has reverberated over time among African American communities..."

Pedestrians walking along 125th Street near Park Avenue who look up to the bridge that spans over the street will see a relief aluminum sculpture filled with Egyptian motifs and flat, Art Deco–inspired forms. Created by artist Terry Adkins (1953–2014) in 1999, this sculpture, Harlem Encore, evokes the Harlem Renaissance, the great flowering of African American art and literature in the 1920s and 1930s. More specifically, Harlem Encore pays tribute to the graphic designer and muralist Aaron Douglas, whose distinctive silhouetted style Adkins adopted. Presiding prominently over 125th Street, Harlem Encore conveys Douglas's pervasive artistic influence and legacy.

Aaron Douglas was born in Topeka, Kansas, to parents who participated in the Great Migration, the waves of African American populations that fled discrimination in the South under Jim Crow laws. After earning an art degree at the University of Nebraska and teaching in Kansas City, Missouri, Douglas made his way to New York to be immersed in the exciting cultural developments in Harlem about which he had been reading. He quickly emerged as among the most gifted visual artists of the Harlem Renaissance, initially by illustrating journals and books, through which he developed his distinctive graphic style synthesizing contemporary design and ancient Egyptian sources. Douglas became best known for his murals that evoke the epic arc of African American history and culture. His most famous mural, Aspects of Negro Life, fills the reading room at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library branch on Malcolm X Boulevard.

In fall 2014, the Metropolitan Museum had the opportunity to acquire Let My People Go, a rare easel painting by Douglas. The painting is part of an important series of eight compositions Douglas based on smaller designs he created in 1927 for a collaborative project with author James Weldon Johnson, God's Trombones, one of the greatest literary achievements of the Harlem Renaissance. Visualizing the biblical story of God's command to Moses to lead the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt, Let My People Go is a powerful allegory of liberation and enlightenment, one that has reverberated over time among African American communities faced with institutional and cultural persecution. Additionally, the Museum's Thomas J. Watson Library acquired a 1929 edition of God's Trombones for its special collections.

Randall Griffey
Associate Curator
Department of Modern and Contemporary Art
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