By the 1920s, African Americans were still fighting everyday for economic, social and political rights. Fighting structural racism seems hardly to leave time for the niceties of cultural identity. But, artists recognized that developing a literary, artistic and musical traditions could empower African Americans across the United States.
The cultural explosion of during the 1920s and 30s has been dubbed Haarlem Renaissance. Though as a Chicago native, Archibald Motley would probably point out that the movement was hardly limited to Haarlem, New York. I don’t know what he would have said about pizza, but one can guess.
Motley was a major figure in the artistic circle of the period. Trained in the classical style at the Art Institute of Chicago, he began painting portraits of African Americans and individuals of mixed race. At the time people of color weren’t exactly in the practice of commissioning grand portraits for the mantle. But, Motley believe that representing African American and biracial individuals was an important, radical step on the path to equality.
Motley wanted the people in his paintings to remain individuals. In Bronzeville at Night, all the figures in the scene engaged in their own small stories. Ladies cross the street with sharply dressed gentleman while other couples seem to argue in the background. Kids munch on sweets and friends dance across the street. There’s even a woman naked in the window in the upper left hand corner. The scandal. The subjects encompass all shapes, sizes, ages and, importantly, skin tone.
Bronzeville at Night came to epitomize Motley’s singular style. Its bold colors and sense of syncopated motion capture the vitality of life in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. The whimsical forms rejected the staid realism Motley learned at the Chicago Institute. With vibrant purple, swirling bodies and skewed perspective Motley generates a distinct sense of time and place. You can practically feel the nigh air on your skin and hear the jazz playing the street.
The scenes of bustling scenes of everyday life proved major successes. With them, Motley managed to put African Americans on to canvas and into galleries. Beyond revolutionary representation, the subject itself supported underlying principals of the Haarlem Renaissance. Motley followed the ideas expressed in Alain Locke’s famous writing the New Negro. In this text, Locke advocated for pluralism and cultural co-operation as a method to help advance racial equality.
Motley style represented a new art for Alain Locke’s New Negro, and maybe a new, more just America