The Roots of the Harlem Renaissance—and Its Power Today

Author Bridget Cooks joins Ben Davis to talk about the Met's new blockbuster show, and the history behind it.

Detail of Archibald J. Motley's Blues (1929) in "The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Ben Davis.

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The words the “Harlem Renaissance” have immense magnetism for vast numbers of people. In art history, however, the Harlem Renaissance has often been treated as a footnote to the main story of 20th century art. It’s often been given scant attention in textbooks, and even U.S. museums have historically given more attention to European movements of the 1920s, such as French Surrealism and Russian Constructivism, than to what was happening with Black artists in their own cities.

A new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, called “The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism,” is out to correct the record. Curated by Denise Murrell, it places the explosion of creativity and experimentation by Black artists from the ’20s to the ’40s at the center of international art conversation in those years. The 160 works on view range from figures like Aaron Douglas and Jacob Lawrence, whose works have long been celebrated, to a host of less familiar names whose stories are not widely known. There’s so much to say about it.

To get some perspective on what makes this show such a big deal, art critic Ben Davis spoke to Bridget Cooks. Cooks teaches art history and African American studies at the University of California, Irvine, and is the author of Exhibiting Blackness, an important 2011 book about the history of U.S. museums’s relationship to Black artists. Cooks also happens to be one of a star group of experts who was on the Advisory Committee for this Met show. With “The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism” drawing major attention, they talked about both the history of the Harlem Renaissance itself and the history how museums have treated the subject in the past.



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