The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural movement, active throughout the 1920s and 30s, specifically between the end of the First World War and the onset of the Great Depression. The movement is best known for its literary and performing arts, but painting, sculpture, and photography also played a role in the generation-defining period.
This movement encouraged the migration of black communities from the southern states who were fleeing racism imposed by Jim Crow laws. Northern cities such as New York, Chicago, Detroit, Columbus, and Cleveland also promised better housing, education, and employment for black communities.
In 1919, the movement was sparked by race riots known as the Red Summer. Based in Harlem, New York, the movement represented black pride through art and culture, and strived to draw attention to racial injustice and inequality. The movement cannot be defined by a style, but by the concept of African American expression through the arts. Common influences include slavery and abolition, modern art genres such as Dada, and West African art (which was considered closely related to black American heritage).
Aaron Douglas (1899 – 1979)
Douglas was an artist and graphic illustrator who is often referred to as the father of African American art. As one of the most famous and recogisable artists of the movement, his work focused on the African American experience, and was heavily influenced by themes of slavery. His paintings are visually influenced by the African mask tradition of Benin, Senegal, and the Congo, as well as Egyptian figures, and European Cubism.
James Van Der Zee (1886 – 1983)
Van Der Zee was a photographer of African American life in Harlem. He primarily photographed Harlem’s flourishing middle class through a mixture of formal studio photography and candid street scenes, with locations such as churches, barbershops, cabarets, and restaurants. His black and white photographic style went on to gain international recognition; his influence can be seen across the world, including in the work of Malick Sidibé, a photographer from Mali who was active throughout the 1960s.
The significant contribution of women to the Harlem Renaissance is only just being considered: sculptors Augusta Savage and Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller defied boundaries as black, female sculptors, and advocated for equal rights within the arts. Find out more about these ground-breaking women of the Harlem Renaissance.
The artistic energy of the Harlem Renaissance dwindled with the onset of the Great Depression. Nevertheless, the movement was a defining period in twentieth-century black art and black history. The period can be considered as a creative outlet for the anger and inequalities of a generation, whose legacy is still as strong as ever; the message and advocacy of the Harlem Renaissance was bold, unapologetic, and powerful, and as pertinent today as it was then.