A culturally hybrid art form, the African-American mural is deeply rooted in ancient and modern African cultures; it also draws from both traditional and modernist Euro-American aesthetic and sociopolitical values. Inspired as much by social and economic conditions as by artistic vision, the African-American mural has reflected historical developments in American life and also helped effect social change. In black communities and on historically black college campuses across the United States, the African-American mural is an ongoing source of cultural pride. Because murals have been among the works most often selected by textbook editors to illustrate African-American achievement in the visual arts, murals by such artists as Aaron Douglas, Hale Woodruff, and Charles White are among the most widely reproduced and readily recognized examples of African-American art.
While confronting the artist with numerous technical challenges, the mural form nonetheless enables him or her to reach countless individuals who may not visit museums or galleries. As a large-scale work of public art, the mural addresses great numbers of viewers from all walks of life. Its large size and usual placement in public spaces make it an especially forceful and effective communication medium. This essential democratic nature makes the mural ideal for celebrating the historical, mythic, and symbolic aspects of African-American life and culture.
Broadly speaking, a mural is a large-scale work of art specifically designed to fill and complement an interior or exterior architectural space—a wall, ceiling, or floor. Not all murals are painted; bas- (low) relief murals may be carved from a flat wood or stone surface, creating a design that is raised in low relief from the background. Other materials may also be used. Glazed tiles, enameled steel panels, terrazzo, and other durable materials can make even exterior murals relatively permanent.
The mural's flat surface and spatial amplitude are especially well suited to telling a story, recounting a historic event, or celebrating the heroism and achievements of historical figures. Because its story or message is expressed through visual images rather than words, the mural enables an artist to communicate with viewers regardless of their language or literacy. A relatively permanent, site-specific work, a mural seldom changes owners and frequently remains in perpetuity under the custodianship of a public institution where it is preserved and presented as a cultural treasure.
The African-American Muralist
African-American muralists are neither an identifiable group nor a school of artists; their common features include only their ethnicity and their occasional production of murals. All have worked primarily in other media. Because they have pursued different visions and styles in different eras and at different stages of their careers, they cannot easily be categorized or characterized. While many have worked primarily with black subjects and themes and addressed their work primarily to minority audiences, others have chosen to work with cross-cultural subjects and themes, creating works for broader audiences. Some identify themselves as "black artists," others as "artists who happen also to be black." Recognizing this multiplicity of aims, audiences, and self-identifications is central to understanding and appreciating African-American artists, for no single characterization adequately encompasses the rich diversity of subjects, themes, and styles with which they have worked.
Because the mural gives powerful voice to an artist's narrative, historical, and sometimes propagandistic or didactic impulses, artists sometimes choose this form when they wish to make an especially important and lasting statement. Socially conscious artists sometimes employ the mural to offer both aesthetic and intellectual nourishment to ordinary citizens who often assume that art is inaccessible or irrelevant to their lives.
From Africa to the Americas
Since the dawn of civilization in the great river valleys of Africa, visual artists have recorded, recounted, celebrated, and preserved human history, achievements, and cultural values by decorating their homes, tombs, and public buildings with figurative and symbolic representations of heroic events and everyday life. Throughout Africa, ancient and modern peoples have created murals using whatever materials were available to them. Ancient Egyptian artisans painted elaborate scenes on plastered or stuccoed interior walls and carved detailed bas-relief scenes on stone panels to decorate exterior walls. Today, women of the Bantu-speaking peoples of southern Africa continue ancient traditions, covering the mud plaster exterior walls of their homes with painted, incised, and inlaid designs combining centuries-old patterns and symbols with images drawn from modern life. Whether the sophisticated products of highly skilled artists or the humble, individual expressions of housewives preserving the vernacular ancestral arts, African murals demonstrate a timeless impulse to decorate architectural surfaces with scenes, images, and symbols depicting a people's history, values, and aesthetic visions.
In Europe the mural experienced its apex with the fresco painting of the Italian Renaissance. Although mural painting never died out completely in the West, it fell generally out of favor until Diego Rivera (1886–1957), José Clemente Orozco (1883–1949), and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896–1974) revived the mural form in Mexico during the late 1920s and 1930s. A flurry of mural painting in the United States soon followed. The Mexican muralists' methods and motives proved a pivotal influence on African-American artists during the 1930s. Observing how these masters of politically and socially charged public art effectively employed the mural form to educate and raise the nationalistic consciousness of a largely illiterate and disunited people in Mexico, leading black American artists recognized the mural's great potential for raising racial consciousness and validating racial identity among black Americans. The influence of the Mexican muralists is readily evident in the murals of Charles Alston, Aaron Douglas, Vertis Hayes, Charles White, Hale Woodruff, and many others.
Materials and Methods
African-American muralists work with both traditional and new materials and methods. Murals painted on plaster are called frescoes. To paint a fresco, artists first render the design in a small-scale drawing called a cartoon. Then they enlarge the design and transfers its basic outlines to the prepared surface. The painting may be done with the help of one or more skilled assistants. In the case of a buon (true) fresco, a smooth final layer of lime plaster (the intonaco) must be applied to the surface a small section at a time to ensure that it is still wet when painted. The artist must work quickly and cannot go back and make revisions. Fresco secco is more commonly used today. Less difficult but also less permanent, it is made by applying water-based paint to dry plaster.
Many murals today are painted in an artist's studio on large canvas panels, tailored to the exact dimensions and shapes of the architectural spaces they are to occupy. When completed, the canvas panels are assembled and installed
under the artist's supervision in the spaces for which they were created, perhaps under the arc formed by a vaulted ceiling or on the wall of a multiple-storied atrium or stairwell.
History of the African-American Mural
The history of the African-American mural reflects the rough outlines of the development of African-American art. Its story is largely confined to the twentieth century and rooted in the institutions of the black community. The wide diversity among the murals black American artists have created over more than a century's time reflects broad developments in African-American art as well as the individual visions of the artists.
Because opportunities for training and patronage were limited for African-American artists prior to the 1930s, few are known to have created murals before the revival brought on by the Mexican muralists. The finest example from the nineteenth century is Robert Scott Duncanson. Duncanson was a traditionalist painter best known for his classical-romantic landscape studies. From 1848 to 1850 he painted a series of eight landscape frescoes for the foyer of a former Cincinnati mansion, now the Taft Museum.
Although William Édouard Scott's career bridged the romantic and modern eras, he remained a traditionalist painter long after his younger colleagues had embraced African art, European modernism, and New Negro themes. In 1913 Scott painted two murals for public schools in Indianapolis, each depicting childhood themes and featuring black subjects. In 1933 he completed two murals for the Harlem YMCA in New York City.
the new negro renaissance
The New Negro Renaissance of the late 1920s and 1930s was a watershed for African-American visual arts. Modernist aesthetic theories and styles joined forces with the ideas of the New Negro Movement, creating a fresh and vital artistic vision. By nurturing a community of race-conscious black artists and intellectuals, by providing new sources of training and patronage, and by establishing alternative means for validating the achievements of black artists within the institutions of the African-American community, the Harlem Renaissance set the intellectual and aesthetic stage for the flurry of mural painting activity in the 1930s.
Pioneering black modernist and New Negro artist Aaron Douglas was the first African-American artist successfully to combine African imagery and sensibilities with European modernist styles, creating a culturally hybrid African-American art. He was also the most prolific African-American muralist. Early in his career, Douglas painted murals for Harlem cabarets. Club Ebony (1927) and Club Harlem (1928) are long gone; with them disappeared Douglas's exotic Africanesque scenes fusing jungle drums, rhythms, and dances with the music and dance of Jazz Age Harlem.
As the cultural renaissance of the 1920s flowed seamlessly into the 1930s, Douglas undertook a number of important mural projects, perfecting his original and distinctive style. In these monumental works he documented with heroic grandeur and mystical wonder his people's journey from ancient Africa to modern urban America, celebrating their aspirations and achievements. Douglas's mural style is distinguished by hard-edge, larger-than-life figures dominating flat, geometrically segmented grounds. His most significant murals include an extensive series of frescoes for Fisk University's Cravath Library (1930), nightclub murals for Chicago's Sherman Hotel (1930), a panel commemorating Harriet Tubman for Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina (1931), a fresco for
Harlem's 135th Street YMCA (1933), a series of four canvas panels for the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library (1934), and a series of four murals for the Texas Centennial Exposition (1936).
Although they did not turn to mural painting until well into the 1930s, several other important artists are also identified with this earliest generation of race-conscious black American artists. Although only a few years older than their students, this so-called "Harlem Renaissance generation" mentored younger artists whose careers began in the 1930s. Both generations were prolific producers of murals during the latter part of that decade.
Hale Woodruff's powerful 1939 series of three mural panels commemorating the centennial of the Amistad slave mutiny and trial stands among the finest examples of the African-American mural. It is owned by Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama. Charles Alston's interest in the healing arts of ancient magic and modern medicine resulted in an important and compelling pair of canvas panels for Harlem Hospital (1936–1937). In 1938 sculptor Richmond Barthé created a monumental pair of bas-relief marble panels for the exterior facade of the Harlem River Housing Project in New York City. Archibald Motley was the premiere black Chicago painter of his era. He created a number of murals for schools and public buildings, including United States Mail (1937), a vivid stagecoach scene for the Wood River, Illinois, Post Office. On the West Coast, sculptor Sargent Johnson also produced several murals during the 1930s.
New Negro artists' thinking about art and society was further refined by the new ideas of a new decade. The strong leftist sympathies that swept through American artistic and intellectual circles in the 1930s joined forces with the "cultural democracy" aims of New Deal art programs, creating a compelling ideological base for a socially conscious, nonelitist "people's art." Many black muralists joined the radical left. For radicalized New Negro artists, cultural democracy meant employing their art to engender racial unity and pride. By using public art to teach the black masses about their rich history and cultural heritage, artists helped to raise black consciousness, setting the stage for the civil rights movement a generation later.
Increased patronage in the late 1930s further stimulated mural production among African-American artists. New Deal art programs provided unprecedented government patronage. The U.S. Treasury Department's Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) (1933–1934), Section of Painting and Sculpture (1934–1942), and Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP) (1935–1936); the Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA) programs administered through the states (1933–1935); and the Federal Arts Project (FAP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) (1935–1942) hired artists to decorate public buildings across America. Although these programs professed a commitment to nondiscrimination, they hired few black artists until after the Harlem Artists Guild began lobbying federal agency officials for more jobs. Guild members included Charles Alston, Selma Day (active 1933–1951), Aaron Douglas, Vertis Hayes (1911–), Elba Lightfoot (1910–), Sara Murrell (active 1936–1939), and Georgette Seabrooke Powell, all of whom secured employment on federal mural projects. The guild's efforts significantly increased the number of black artists hired by New Deal agencies nationwide and helped to place a few black artists in supervisory positions. More than a hundred African-American artists were employed on New York City's WPA/FAP. Although black women artists benefited in significant numbers, sexism usually relegated them to jobs teaching art rather than producing it. This may in part explain the relative dearth of black women muralists, for many of their male counterparts were initiated into the mural medium through their work on New Deal mural projects.
the interim years
While the period spanning the first great black cultural awakening of the 1920s and 1930s and the black arts movement of the late 1960s and 1970s saw significantly less activity in African-American mural production, it nonetheless yielded some outstanding murals by well-established black artists. The loss of federal patronage was a significant factor in the decline in the number of mural commissions.
During these relatively lean years for black artists, much of their patronage came from within the black community. Blacks commissioned murals for their homes, businesses, and community gathering places. Aaron Douglas painted murals for two private residences in Wilmington, Delaware. Charles Alston and Hale Woodruff were commissioned in 1948 by the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company to paint a pair of mural panels documenting the contributions of black people in settling and building the state of California. In 1953 a Houston minister commissioned John T. Biggers to paint The Contribution of Negro Women to American Life and Education for the Blue Triangle Branch of the Houston YWCA.
America's historically black colleges and universities played a central and ongoing patronage role during these years. In 1943 Charles White completed Hampton University's The Contribution of the Negro to American Democracy, a kaleidoscopic "visual textbook" surveying the faces and figures of more than twenty great African-American men and women. His mentorship had a lasting effect on Hampton undergraduates who watched him as he painted; Persis Jennings (active c. 1942–1944) subsequently painted murals at Fort Eustis, Virginia (1942) and the East End Baptist Church in Suffolk, Virginia (c. 1942–1944). Hale Woodruff's Art of the Negro, a series of six panels completed in 1950 for the Arnett Library at Atlanta University, is an outstanding example from this period.
For decades, white philanthropies—whose patronage and interest had been carefully cultivated in the 1920s and 1930s by intermediary patrons like W. E. B. Du Bois and Charles S. Johnson—continued to award fellowships to black artists. Yet their support dwindled after the 1930s. The Julius Rosenwald Fund of Chicago and the Carnegie Foundation of New York provided a good deal of support for black artists but funded very few mural projects after their interests shifted to the education and training of artists.
the black arts movement
The black arts movement of the late 1960s and 1970s marked the second major cultural awakening in black America. Led by young artists radicalized by the Black Power movement, the black arts movement earned the support of some elder black artists but created sharp tensions among others. It helped to revitalize a languishing African-American art and stimulated a resurgent interest in mural painting.
The African-American mural moved out of doors and into the streets of America's urban ghettoes in the late 1960s, when radicalized artists recognized and seized upon the public mural's communication potential. In cities across the country, militant black artists organized massive-scale, collaborative mural projects in an effort to create a "people's art." Submerging the artists' individual identities and voices in a collective, revolutionary chorus, they brought art into neighborhoods where social and economic conditions attested to the oppression and exploitation these artists reviled. Covering entire exterior walls of inner-city buildings with boldly colorful, naive images of black pride, black power, African heritage, and African-American heroes and heroines, they raised race consciousness and fostered pride and dignity among America's dispossessed minorities.
Best known of these outdoor murals is Chicago's Wall of Respect (1967). Created by AfriCobra (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) leader and Howard University art professor Jeff Donaldson (1932–) and other members of the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), this work spawned hundreds of similar outdoor murals in cities all across the United States. Conceived and executed as vehicles for community involvement, these projects brought skilled, socially committed artists together with young people who learned to reclaim their cultural heritage as they painted its imagery on neighborhood walls.
Even after the black arts movement declined, the painting of murals on neighborhood walls continued. In the 1990s inner-city walls were dotted with portraits of black heroes, tributes to slain rap singers, and slogans. This rich vernacular tradition in turn influenced artistic professionals. A notable example was Jean-Michael Basquiat, the wunderkind of the 1980s, who used a colorful palette and action-packed composition in a notable mural on New York's East Village.
the recent past
The mural is not a static art form; its evolution in black America reflects a changing American society over time, as well as the artists' changing relationship with that society. In recent decades established and respected African-American artists have won prestigious mural commissions both in and outside the black community. Two of the most prominent artists are Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence. Both only undertook mural commissions in their mature years after establishing their reputations in other media.
The pioneering and best-known collagist of his time, Bearden was nearly sixty when he created The Block (1971), a six-panel collage depicting life in the buildings of a block-long stretch of a busy Harlem street. A tape recording of street sounds is part of the mural's installation. His 1983 mosaic, Baltimore Uproar, marks the subway station near Billie Holiday's birthplace in Baltimore. In 1984 Bearden completed Pittsburgh Recollections, a ceramic tile mosaic mural depicting that city's black history and installed in an underground subway station.
Jacob Lawrence, who for decades had expressed his narrative impulses through extensive series of small images collectively recounting long, heroic stories drawn from dramatic episodes in African-American history, was in his sixties before he began combining multiple images into murals. In 1979, he completed Games, a ten-panel sports mural for Seattle's Kingdome Stadium. In 1985 Lawrence completed Theater for the University of Washington.
Contemporary ideas, materials, and styles have continued to keep African-American murals vital, fresh, and dynamic. Lawrence's Exploration (1980) is a thematically and visually connected series of twelve enamels on steel panels. A fresh and vital exploration of the interrelationships among the academic disciplines, the mural was installed in Howard University's Blackburn University Center in 1980. In Origins Lawrence used the same materials for a visual exploration of Harlem history and life. This work was installed near Exploration in 1984.
One of the most unusual and moving murals of recent years is Houston Conwill's 1990 floor mural, Rivers, inspired by Langston Hughes's poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." Installed in the lobby outside the Langston Hughes Auditorium at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black History of the New York Public Library, Conwill's terrazzo "cosmogram" celebrates the spread of African culture throughout the world. The mural also covers the tomb in which the poet's ashes were interred in 1990.
One of the students who had watched Charles White paint his fresco at Hampton in 1942 and 1943 was John T. Biggers. Nearly four decades later, Biggers returned to his alma mater to paint two panels flanking the five-story atrium of the university's new Harvey Library. House of the Turtle and Tree House were completed in 1992. Their mystical, mythic figures, symbolic images, and repetitive geometric patterns express a cosmology that spiritually and functionally interconnects their human figures, the natural world, and the built environment.
See also Amistad Mutiny; Bearden, Romare; Black Arts Movement; Douglas, Aaron; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Harlem Renaissance; Holiday, Billie; Johnson, Charles Spurgeon; Lawrence, Jacob; New Negro; Painting and Sculpture; Tubman, Harriet; Woodruff, Hale
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linda nieman (1996)