The Harlem Renaissance was an early 20th century (1920’s-30’s) literary, artistic, and intellectual movement in Harlem, New York. As African-Americans migrated from rural Southern plantation slavery to areas such as the US urban North East, communities were formed and civil rights sought for. This, in turn, creating the foundations for black cultural expression to manifest and become globally influential.
(Lois Maillou Jones, In her Paris studio, c.1938)
Within this movement there were many women who were artists such as Augusta Savage, Selma Burke, Elizabeth Prophet and Lois Maillou Jones. The blossoming of creative African-American female talent had, in turn, been enabled by previous sister pioneers of the art world such as Edmonia Lewis.
In the 19th century, Lewis was the first African/Native American sculptor to gain international recognition. The artist lived for many years in the European cities of Rome and London, and her pioneering work included African-American and abolitionist themes.
(Edmonia Lewis, Forever Free (1867), the emancipation of African-American slaves after the Civil War)
Like Lewis however, the women of the Harlem Renaissance faced prejudices of both race and sex. They braved not only the ongoing hostile racist environment of exclusion and suppression but also the challenge of gaining independence as women to pursue their artistic goals.
The racial and gendered prejudices of the institutions of the art and outside world challenged the ambitions of artists such as Lois Mailou Jones. While living in North Carolina, for example, the artist was subject to the humiliation of segregation, forcing her to move north. Despite the racist injustices she endured, Jones eventually studied art abroad, becoming a highly influential, internationally exhibited artist and educator during the Harlem Renaissance. She later became Professor of design at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
(Lois Mailou Jones, Self-Portrait, 1930’s)
Like Jones, Augusta Savage also became influential in the movement. When struggling with poverty, the Harlem community, including African-American women’s groups, fund raised to send the artist to Paris to study. Later, in 1934, Savage became the first African-American artist to be elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors.
(Augusta Savage in the studio, 1939)
In turn, such artists’ talent and creative persistence in the face of adversity aided in forging the idea of the “New Negro Woman”, a complex cultural identity for African-American females based on intellect and creativity.
This was an early voice for the civil rights movement and the creation of an intellectual role for black women in both the arts and wider society.