Inside the groundbreaking Harlem Renaissance exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Harlem Renaissance had an indisputable impact on American culture, but chances are that you probably didn’t spend much time learning about it in school. That’s because, even though it shaped global literature, music, and art, Black Americans’ historical contributions have been systematically erased or gone unacknowledged for centuries.

A groundbreaking exhibit opening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art hopes to be a part of rectifying the erasure and celebrating Black artists and intellectuals in its newest exhibit “The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism,” which will be open to the public starting February 25. 

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The Harlem Renaissance, which was once referred to as the New Negro Movement, was a period in the 1920s and ’30s after The Great Migration in which Black artists formed a culture that centered Black identity and dignity through art and included artists in Philadelphia, Chicago and Europe. Its epicenter, though, was in Harlem, and it was there that many of its leaders, including Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, lived.

The exhibit presents 160 works by Black artists from the Harlem Renaissance and delves into many different aspects of the movement, mostly through the lens of paintings and sculpture. 

A gallery
Photograph: By Anna-Marie Kellen / Courtesy The Met Photo

Among the different galleries is a section that focuses on Black portraiture, which mixes elements of African-American folk art and European avant-garde techniques that Black artists learned abroad to create dynamic depictions of their community; a section that focuses on the rising Black middle class in cities; and a gallery dedicated entirely to art that celebrates the nightlife that deeply impacted the culture of the Harlem Renaissance—most notably jazz. There are also copies of zines that were a central part of the movement, including Alaine Locke’s The New Negro and Aaron Douglas’ Fire!!, which explored then-taboo topics like sex work and queerness.

There are also two walls entirely dedicated to the art of Aaron Douglas, the painter and illustrator whose silhouette-heavy murals addressed segregation. The centerpiece of this section is his series of paintings, “Aspects of Negro Life,” which depicts pivotal moments in African-American history, including slavery, emancipation and the Harlem Renaissance itself. 

Aspects of Negro Life by Aaron Douglas
Photograph: By Anna-Marie Kellen / Courtesy The Met Photo

There’s also work by Laura Wheeler Waring, William H. Johnson, Archibald J. Motley, Jr., James Van Der Zee, and many others. 

The exhibition is a big deal. For one, it recognizes the Harlem Renaissance as the first African-American-led movement of international modern art. Despite the movement’s prominence, this is the largest survey on the topic since 1987. Curators sourced art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, including the Fisk University Galleries and Howard University Gallery of Art, as well as the National Portrait Gallery and private lenders.

“One of the many personal highlights of working on this exhibition over the past couple of years have been the visits to the deep treasure troves to these institutions and collections … and to prepare these often forgotten works of art,” Dr. Denise Murrell, the lead curator of the exhibition, said.

The exhibition honors Black history and Black artists on a scale that’s seldom seen, and it does so in one of the most important—and controversial—museums in the world. “Museums like this are important because they create the soundtrack that tells us who we are as a people,” said Ford Foundation president Darren Walker at the inaugural event for the exhibition. “And for too long, that soundtrack did not include the voices, the music, that so many of the people whose shoulders we stand on.”

Archibald J. Motley, Jr., Black Belt
Photograph: By Alexander Kravets

You should set aside about two hours to comfortably get through all the material in the exhibition. Walking through the different rooms and seeing the art—all of it of extraordinary quality, yet most of it unseen and unknown by most—it becomes evident how much history, knowledge and art we’ve missed out on because of the racial structures that have long dictated who gets to be seen in America. This is unlike any other exhibition because so much of the art on display was scattered throughout the country in small galleries or university campuses and not deemed of national importance until now. Although nothing can right the wrongs of history and the erasure that these artists unjustly experienced, we can ensure that we pay attention and finally give credit where it’s due. 

“The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism” opens to the public starting February 25. You can get your tickets here.

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