The exhibition Represent: 200 Years of African American Art is co-curated by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw and John Vick and highlights selections from the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s exceptional holdings of African American art and celebrates the publication of a catalogue (edited and with major essays by Shaw, with an introduction by Richard J. Powell, and entries by PMA curators and others) examining the breadth of these noteworthy collections. With work by renowned artists such as Henry Ossawa Tanner, Horace Pippin, Jacob Lawrence, and Carrie Mae Weems, the exhibition showcases a range of subjects, styles, mediums, and traditions. Since the Museum’s acquisition of Tanner’s painting The Annunciation in 1899, its collections of African American art have grown significantly, especially during the last three decades.
From compelling stories to innovative methods, Represent explores the evolving ways in which African American artists have expressed personal, political, and racial identity. It begins with rare examples of fine and decorative arts made in the 1800s by free and enslaved individuals such as a large storage jar by the accomplished potter David Drake. As access to artistic training and opportunities increased, the relationship between creative expression and identity grew more complex and nuanced. In the early twentieth century, artists like William Henry Johnson and Elizabeth Catlett embraced modernism by representing personal experiences or scenes of daily life in vibrant colors and dynamic compositions.
In the exhibition, abstract paintings and sculpture from the 1960s through the 1980s by Barbara Chase-Riboud, Martin Puryear, and others show a desire to balance cultural and artistic identities, challenging the idea that work by African Americans should be viewed in primarily racial terms. By contrast, many artists working in the 1990s and since, Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson among them, have used pictures and text to examine the past and make pointed statements about race. Represent culminates by stepping outside historical narrative to present an array of portraits by several generations of artists, from those active over a century ago to those making work today.
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