The exhibition explores the role of African Americans in the visual and performing arts during the Depression era. Shaken by the economic collapse, the country experienced a profound crisis of national identity. Artists began to picture the “American Scene,” subjects culled from daily life such as farms, labor, picnics, and landscapes. African American culture was used as source material for depicting the American Scene. Furthermore, federal funding for the arts during the Depression provided opportunities for white and black artists alike. Through visual art, dance, and film, African Americans and the American Scene endeavors to sift through the complexities of racial representation in art and the social inclusion and exclusion that affected black artists’ and performers’ access to their medium of choice.
Artists featured in this exhibition include Thomas Hart Benton (American, 1889-1975), Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975), Robert Gwathmey (American, 1903-1988), Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965), Aaron Siskind (American, 1903-1991), and Marion Post Wolcott (American, 1910-1990). Artwork by African American artists Samuel Brown (American, 1907-1994), Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917-2000), and William H. Johnson (American, 1901-1970) highlight the ways that black artists engaged with the American Scene movement. The visual art from the 30s and 40s is paired with Barbara Morgan (American, 1900-1992)’s photographs of African American modern dancer Pearl Primus (American, 1919-1994) and artistic storyboards from the film The Emperor Jones, starring Paul Robeson.