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The Met Museum Shines a Spotlight on Harlem Renaissance in 2024

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is set to unveil an exhibition that dives deep into the Harlem Renaissance, rekindling the artistic fervor of a historic era that defined modern Black life in America.

In an exciting development, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, often simply called The Met, is gearing up to present an exhibition dedicated to the Harlem Renaissance. This pivotal chapter in American history, spanning from the 1920s to the 1940s, witnessed an explosion of African American art, literature, and culture. As droves of African Americans sought refuge from the segregationist South and made their homes in the North, they painted, wrote, and sang tales of their experiences.

Rediscovering Underrepresented Artists

Titled “The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism,” the exhibition is slated to be showcased from February 25 until July 28. This retrospective promises to be unique. After all, it’s been almost four decades since a New York museum showcased an exhibition of this magnitude, diving deep into this culturally rich period.

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The spotlight will not only be on renowned figures but also on artists who, though brilliant, found little recognition in their time. Names like James Van Der Zee, the iconic photographer, and Augusta Savage, the ingenious sculptor, will feature prominently. To add an international flair, pieces that trace the diaspora’s influence, such as works by Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch, and Pablo Picasso, will also grace the exhibition halls.

In the words of curator Murrell, “The emphasis is to demonstrate the comprehensive approach to thought during this era. It’s momentous in art history. Here, for the first time, we see a group of African American artists illustrating modern Black life with contemporary undertones. And they pursued this passion even without the backing of renowned institutions or the commercial market.”

The Met and HBCUs

It’s noteworthy that major art establishments, including The Met, largely overlooked these artists during their prime. Their collections scarcely covered the Harlem Renaissance, a void The Met is now trying to fill. To make this exhibition as inclusive and accurate as possible, The Met is collaborating with HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) to borrow seminal artworks.

Several prestigious institutions, including Howard University, Fisk University, Hampton University, and Clark Atlanta University, have generously loaned artwork for this event. One such artwork, “Woman in Blue” painted in 1943 by William H. Johnson, is all set to be the signature image for the entire exhibition. Murrell envisions this collaboration as the first step towards a long-standing relationship between The Met and HBCUs, fostering a mutual appreciation for the rich tapestry of art in their archives.

Correcting Historical Oversights

Murrell emphasizes the importance of what the Harlem artists set out to achieve. Their attempt to depict modern life within their communities was groundbreaking. She adds, “Painting an elderly Black woman, potentially born in the chains of slavery, was a powerful message of their times. Such dignified renditions were previously non-existent.”

It’s worth recalling that in 1969, The Met hosted “Harlem on My Mind.” Sadly, it came under criticism for sidelining Black artists, focusing instead on newspaper snippets and photos that portrayed mostly Black and Latino individuals. This upcoming exhibition, in many ways, is not just a tribute but also an attempt to right the imbalances of the past.

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