Black History Month

Jacob Lawrence is renowned for his narrative painting series that chronicles the experiences of African Americans, which he created during a career of more than six decades. Using geometric shapes and bold colors on flattened picture planes to express his emotions, he fleshed out the lives of Tubman, Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and African Americans migrating north from the rural south during and after slavery. Lawrence was 12 in 1929 when his family settled in Harlem, New York, at a time when African American intellectual and artistic life was flourishing there.

Kara Walker’s art has been exhibited across the globe. Her 1994 room-sized mural, titled Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, brought her into the art world spotlight. The work consists of black cut-out silhouettes and depicts narratives of slavery and racism in the history of the south.

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Black History Month

Charles White, the meticulous draftsman used his skill to render human emotion and endurance in the face of such obstacles as discrimination. His works from the 1950s, the decade when the civil rights struggle exploded in the United States, show the cost of such perseverance in images of black men and women fighting for social justice.

Artist and author Faith Ringgold was inspired by the fabrics used by her mother when she was a child. She has written children’s books, taught visual art, and produced narrative works about gender and race. Notably, Ringgold helped form an activist committee in the 1970s protesting the inequal presence of female artists at the Whitney Biennial. Her mosaics are present in subway stations, and her sculptures and quilts, such as the 1985 Flag Story Quilt, are part of permanent collections in New York City.

Black History Month

Painted 11 years after Henry Ossawa Tanner first settled in Paris in 1891, this rapidly executed plein-air oil sketch is one of the artist’s rare depictions of the French capital. His vantage point is from the right bank of the Seine looking west toward the towers of the Palais du Trocadéro, the exhibition hall built for the 1878 World’s Fair. A diffuse, hazy light fills the scene, which is free of human activity save for a solitary figure dressed in black at the lower right. With short, loose brushstrokes laden with paint, Tanner captured the scattered reflections of light across both river and sky. (from National Gallery of Art)

May Flowers, a compelling photograph of three young African American girls, succinctly addresses the issues of race, class, and gender that the American artist Carrie Mae Weems has explored for decades. Related to a video Weems made in 2002 titled May Days Long Forgotten, the photograph evokes both spring’s renewal and May Day, the international workers’ holiday. Befitting these themes, May Flowers depicts girls from working-class families in Syracuse, New York, wearing floral-print dresses. Its tondo format, truncated foreground space, and tight focus on the figures harks back to Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and child, while its subject—adolescent girls with flowers in their hair, lounging on the grass—recalls both 19th-century paintings and photographs, such as those by Édouard Manet and Julia Margaret Cameron. Weems intensified this historical character by printing the photograph in sepia tones and placing it in a circular frame like those gracing the walls of 19th-century parlors. (from National Gallery of Art)