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'The Harlem Renaissance' and what is Black art for?


When we think about the Harlem Renaissance, we usually think about it as a literary movement, writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. But the Black cultural revival that spanned from the 1910s to the '30s was also very much a movement of visual artists - painters, sculptors, photographers. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is showcasing those visual arts in the exhibition "The Harlem Renaissance And Transatlantic Modernism."

NPR's own Brittany Luse, host of NPR's It's Been A Minute, checked out the exhibit and is here to talk about it. Welcome.

BRITTANY LUSE, BYLINE: Thank you. It's good to be here.

DETROW: Did you attend the Met Gala as well when you were up there?

LUSE: My invitation got lost in the mail, I'm afraid.

DETROW: Next time. Next time.

LUSE: Next time.

DETROW: But still, you've seen the exhibit. And, you know, like I said, I think a lot of people are not as familiar with this side of the Harlem Renaissance. What were your impressions?

LUSE: Oh, my gosh. First of all, I mean, the exhibit itself is - it's comprehensive and gorgeously put together. But, I mean, you're absolutely right. Most people do think of the Harlem Renaissance as primarily a literary movement, yet so many famous Black artists really flourished during that time period. Paintings from Laura Wheeler Waring, Jacob Lawrence and William H. Johnson - those are throughout the exhibit. A sculpture from Augusta Savage, photographer James Van Der Zee and his scenes of affluent Black life in Harlem - these photos that showed Black people in a very different way than we were often portrayed at that time. In some ways, the Harlem Renaissance started the debates that we're still having about Black art today, raising questions like, what is art for, and how do we want to represent ourselves?

DETROW: So you didn't just walk around the exhibit yourself. You got a tour from the curator, the person who put this all together.

LUSE: Yes, yes. I got to have a tour with the curator and to actually sit down with her later on. Her name is Denise Murrell, and she is the curator behind this exhibit. And as we walked through, she explained that Harlem was not just a location, but an idea.

DENISE MURRELL: The idea of Harlem is about Black modernity. It was about the deliberate attempt to remake the image of African Americans as contributors to the unfolding of modern life in American cities. And it was fueled, of course, by the Great Migration of, ultimately, millions of African Americans to escape the Jim Crow world of the South.

LUSE: Right.

MURRELL: It was about Black modernity emanating from Harlem nationwide, but also internationally, so rooted in geographic location but transcending geography as well.

LUSE: That brings me to my next thought. You said that the artists and the thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance kind of formalized - capital B, capital M - Black Modernism. What did you mean by that? Can you define Black Modernism and how it was crystallized during that period?

MURRELL: Yes. Well, the most clear-cut break is from the kind of rural imagery in which the Black person was invariably subordinate, in tattered clothing, in positions of servitude or manual labor as the natural condition of the race. But I would define Black Modernity as it was articulated in the period as urbane city life, where the individual had the social and economic leeway to engage in cultural activities - activities of the mind, the spirit, the imagination.

LUSE: You mentioned in the essay that you have in the book for this exhibition that, like, a lot of the ways that Black people think about our art and ourselves now is based out of the Harlem Renaissance and that modernity. Can you kind of expand on that?

MURRELL: Well, I think it was the idea that we were going to define by ourselves, for ourselves what our public image was - just the idea of depicting aspects of everyday life, people from all social roles, not just the so-called good Negro. They were saying we want to include the common run of us, the term that Zora Neale Hurston used, people with their colorful clothes and energetic dancing were creating new modes of expression emanating from African American culture that we should embrace, rather than reject.

You don't see the leading portraitist of the day only depicting, say, you know, upper class or bourgeois types. They portray whatever subject interests them. Langston Hughes said, we know we're beautiful, but ugly too. So the duality, the complexity of human nature was not something to be papered over or dismissed. We could be fully credible as human beings, even as we reveal the complexities and the dualities and the contradictions. And I think that that complexity is part of the creative expression of the leading Black writers and thinkers today.

DETROW: I'm back with Brittany Luse, host of It's Been A minute. And, you know, Brittany, it does feel like a lot of the big legacy museums in New York - You know, the Met, MoMA, the Guggenheim - they really have made a push in the last few years to showcase more Black artists. I'm wondering. Do you feel like this is still a trend or do you feel like you're seeing lasting changes in the type of art that these museums are showcasing?

LUSE: I think that there's a lot of intention that's being put behind these big exhibits like the one that Denise put on at the Met. But I think, to me, what's going to make this a lasting long-term change is going to see, I think, a greater investment in beefing up these museum's collections to include more Black artists and artists from diverse backgrounds, but also in investing in curators like Denise, who actually know this work and deeply care about it and want to bring it to the public.

DETROW: That's Brittany Luse, host of It's Been A minute, another public radio voice you hear on your radios over the course of the weekend. Thanks so much for coming and talking to us about this.

LUSE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Brittany Luse
Brittany Luse is an award-winning journalist, on-air host, and cultural critic. She is the host of It's Been a Minute and For Colored Nerds. Previously Luse hosted The Nod and Sampler podcasts, and co-hosted and executive produced The Nod with Brittany and Eric, a daily streaming show. She's written for Vulture and Harper's Bazaar, among others, and edited for the podcasts Planet Money and Not Past It. Luse and her work have been profiled by publications like The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vulture, and Teen Vogue.