By Austen Krantz
New York City’s Harlem Renaissance delivered a revolution in African American literature, music and visual art that exists in remaining artwork and in the compositions of inspired modern artists. And through the spring, Baton Rouge residents can see some of these works amassed from galleries across the country in the LSU Museum of Art’s Visual Blues Exhibition.
The exhibition boasts 64 works from 34 different artists, some from the early 20th century Harlem Renaissance period and others from more modern artists who share similar themes.
“This is one of the most ambitious exhibitions we’ve hosted,” said director of museum advancement Fairleigh Jackson.
It’s also one of the more expensive exhibitions the museum has hosted with pieces hailing from as far away as California and, of course, New York. As a result, the museum applied for and received a prestigious $30,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Arts for exhibition costs, as well as a grant from the Louisiana Office of Tourism to promote the exhibition outside of Louisiana.
The result is a six-section exhibit of visual art and literary work, complete with detailed information on the period, complementing music and a timeline detailing the history and relevance of the Harlem Renaissance.
Visual Blues specifically explores the role of music within the movement according to Lucy Perera, the museum’s coordinator of school and community programs. She explained previous curator Natalie Mault sought to emphasize music’s influence on the period as she gathered material for the exhibit.
“The Harlem Renaissance has been explored in different ways before,” Perera said. “But [Natalie’s] focus was on that connection to music. She spent about three or four years travelling throughout the United States looking through collections.”
Perera explained the Harlem Renaissance period was characterized by a mass movement of African Americans to areas in the north for better job opportunities and escape from the violence and economic turmoil of the rural south. The wake of this migration brought about more cultural expression in black communities, especially in urban areas like New York’s Harlem neighborhood as black artists and intellectuals worked and lived in the same metropolitan community.
But the musical element of the Harlem renaissance was “on every level,” Perera said. While Harlem jazz music was innovative and popular, it also existed as a constant backdrop of life in Harlem in clubs, homes and even through visual artists who channeled that music into their own work.
The exhibit features some of these paintings of musical subject matter as well as portrait photos of famous Harlem musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Cab Calloway and Billie Holiday.
Randal Henry, a local artist who lent his collage Musical Connections to the last section of the exhibition, also likened his work to that of a jazz musician. He explained he wanted to show a meshing between all of the musical styles in Louisiana in his collage.
“It’s all improvising — putting one thing down, putting another thing down, putting a shape next to it and putting a color next to it,” Henry said. “It’s like creating order out of chaos, and that’s the way many modern musicians and painters work, bringing order to it.”