The Harlem Renaissance was an era of art and music in the late 1930s. A large number of African-Americans came up from the southern regions of America to settle in New York City, specifically Harlem. Jacob Lawrence was born in 1917 in New Jersey, and his family would be part of this shift to New York City within the next 13 years. In the 1930s he was noticed by several artists, but enlisted in the Civilian Conservation Corps. Eventually he returned to the arts, and by the 1940s he was an active member of the Federal Arts Project (FAP), like numerous other NBMAA artists. This was a significant step because he was able to support himself as an African-American adult in a world where he was free, but lacked equality. Do you know of any other famous artists who are a product of the Harlem Renaissance?
His work with the FAP fostered his creative spirit, and would prove to be career-defining as the years went on. In 1941 he had a one-person show which resulted in massive exposure and excellent reviews. He would go on to serve in the Coast Guard, and this would also prove beneficial to his artwork. His focus on the struggle of the African American population proved to be the inspiration for numerous series of paintings examining the overall plight of the working class. Lawrence was a very forward-thinking man for the time, and did not hold back artistically.
Lawrence would eventually travel to Africa and create a series of works entitled Nigerian Series (1964-1965.) This was a source of refreshed inspiration for his works, and the next several years fostered some of his best work. The NBMAA has one such work, Dreams #1. This artwork depicts a black couple lying in a crib-like bed, which might be understood as a hindrance of sorts – as if it is a jail cell. They are in a dream-like state, as is expressed by the figures around them. We witness and understand these imagined figures as a nightmare in visual form. Their rigid extremities, anguished expressions, and general body language leave the viewer uneasy and disconcerted. Masked figures are shown with daggers, pitchforks, and other allusions to blood and violence.
A religious undertone to this visual nightmare is clear from the only item which crosses into our visual space – a crucifix. The crucifix hangs on the central bed post closest to us, and looks to be directly in between the couple as they physically touch. This symbolizes their shared discomfort and problems which are expressed in their nightmare.
It is clear Lawrence was influenced by his visit to Africa for works like this. The color palette is simple, bold, and provides an aesthetic common amongst modern African dress. The literal use of black for their skin color, instead of a more common dark brown, also shows its grounding in this recent trip abroad. Their plight within a nightmare can be expressed as the overall problems within society at this time, right in the middle of the civil rights movement. Interestingly, Malcolm X was shot in New York City the same year that Dreams #1 was created.
Lawrence created this piece during a time of advancement and turbulence within the African-American community, and across the United States. His career has focused on the plight of African-Americans and the entire working class of the 20th century. This piece is a prime example of his work and everything he represents as an African-American artist.
Be sure to stop in and see Dreams #1 and other masterpieces by African-Americans, and help raise awareness and appreciation of their historical accomplishments in honor of this past Black History Month.