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The Transformative Power of African-American Artists

A message from the head of Detroit’s most important Black cultural institution

The African-American community thrives on the arts. It is one thing that has always been accessible. The ability to create, interpret and reinterpret remained with us even through slavery.

During the Harlem Renaissance, visual artists joined their counterparts in literature, music, theater and dance to create images of the New Negro. They created bold, stylized images of African Americans and African-American life. These images were disseminated through publications that were widely read and distributed nationally, creating mass appeal. The art moved people, changed minds, created a sense of pride and brought people together.

The trend continued in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s with a growing social and racial consciousness permeating the work of many artists. However, it was the Black Arts Movement in the ’60s and ’70s that had art and the community speaking with one voice.

We can still look at the work of Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, John Biggers, Jon Onye Lockard, Shirley Woodson and Romare Bearden, and know that Black is beautiful, the family must be strong and we do have a rich legacy. African-American artists presented these themes and others in murals throughout communities, books, galleries, in schools, in libraries, clothing designs, our hairstyles, our home furnishings and jewelry designs.

This cultural revolution through art did not stop with trained artists. The work of folk artists, quilters and other untrained artists became widely accepted and highly sought after by the African-American community. Not all art was affordable for everyone, but a tremendous amount of art was affordable and accessible. People were connected to art daily in galleries, homes, parks, buildings, community centers, office settings, churches, at festivals and on street corners.

African-American art has been and can continue to be a catalyst in Detroit, home to many of the country’s largest and most significant individually owned African-American art collections. Each year, thousands of attendees and hundreds of vendors come to the African World Festival hoping to purchase and sell, respectively, some piece of art, clothing, music or instrument related to African and African-American culture.

For many in African-American communities throughout the nation, the power of the arts changed ordinariness into grandeur, sadness into joy, despair into hope and history into possibilities. Art presented a total affirmation of Black culture, which encouraged all of us to turn a conscious eye on the world in which we lived and gain the clarity and beauty of a fresh look at ourselves and our communities.

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