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Harlem revisited

Photo illustration R. Steve Dick/University Relations, painting: Art and Artifacts Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Susan Earle, curator of American and European art at the Spencer Museum of Art, is shown in silhouette in front of one of the Aaron Douglas paintings featured in the upcoming exhibit "Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist." Douglas, a leader in the Harlem Renaissance movement, often used silhouetted figures in his work. Earle is curator of the exhibit.

Exhibit brings work of native Kansan, acclaimed artist to KU

Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery Through Reconstruction

Douglas painting "Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery Through Reconstruction"

A major exhibition celebrating the life, art and legacy of Aaron Douglas, recognized as the most important visual artist of the Harlem Renaissance, has opened at the Spencer Museum of Art and will continue through Dec. 2.

"Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist" is the first national traveling retrospective of the work of the artist born in Topeka in 1899. It brings together nearly 100 works from public institutions and private collections across the country. The exhibition is free and open to the public.

Ongoing celebration

For a list of public programs and events, see OREAD. For details about the exhibition, national conference and public programming, visit Aaron Douglas.

Susan Earle, exhibition curator and curator of American and European art at the Spencer Museum of Art, notes that Alain Locke, the philosopher and writer and a contemporary of Douglas, once described Douglas as the "father of black American art."

The exhibition highlights places in the artist's career: northeast Kansas, where he grew up; Nashville, where he taught for 29 years; and New York, where he took center stage in the Harlem Renaissance.

In 2008, the exhibition will travel to Nashville's Frist Center for the Visual Arts, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City.

The Spencer will host a public reception Sept. 28 and a national conference on "Aaron Douglas and the Arts of the Harlem Renaissance" Sept. 28 and 29.

William J. Harris, associate professor of English, and Stephanie Fox Knappe, doctoral student in art history and exhibition coordinator, are organizing the conference, which will conclude with a Cabaret Harlem Renaissance Rent Style Party at 8 p.m. Sept. 29 in the Kansas Union ballroom.

Planning for the exhibition began in 1999 when Douglas, who died in 1979, would have been 100. In preparation, the museum staff has worked with Fisk University and the Schomburg Center, as well as a national advisory group.

Yale University Press has published a catalogue with the Spencer. Edited by Earle, the catalogue includes contributions by leading scholars of African -American art and a foreword by Chancellor Robert Hemenway. Two contributors are KU graduate students: Knappe and Cheryl R. Rager, a doctoral student in American studies.

Susan Earle

Support for the exhibition and catalogue comes from the Henry Luce Foundation, with additional exhibition support from the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. KU offices providing support include the Chancellor's office; Interdisciplinary Jazz Studies Group; Hall Center for the Humanities; Franklin D. Murphy Lecture Fund; Kress Foundation Department of Art History; and University Theatre.

More support was provided by the Capitol Federal Foundation; Kansas Arts Commission, a state agency; Judith Rothschild Foundation; Breidenthal-Snyder Foundation; the World Company; Richard J. Stern Foundation for the Arts; Price R. and Flora A. Reid Foundation; Footprints; Aquila; A.G. Edwards & Sons; John and Nancy Hiebert in memory of Judge Cordell D. Meeks Jr.; Ann Thompson; and the Kansas City Call.

More public programs and events include

  • Saturday, Sept. 15, Spencer Central Court: Children's Art Appreciation Class (family weekend at KU)
  • Wednesday, Sept. 26 3 p.m. 9th & New Hampshire (Aquila Bldg wall facing parking lot): Unveiling of Aaron Douglas community mural project, commissioned by the Spencer in style of work by Douglas featuring native Kansan African American artists, actors and writers.
  • Thursday, Sept. 27, 7:30 p.m., Spencer Auditorium: "The Enigma of Ralph Ellison" lecture by Arnold Rampersad, Stanford's Sara Hart Kimball Professor in Humanities and professor of English. This is the Richard W. Gunn Memorial Lecture.
  • Friday, Sept 28, 5:30 to 9 p.m. Spencer Museum of Art: Opening reception: Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist
  • Tuesday, Oct. 9, 7 p.m., Edwards Campus: Lecture by exhibition coordinator Stephanie Fox Knappe, KU PhD student in art history
  • Wednesday and Thursday, Oct. 10 and 11 (day long events) at Spencer Museum: Teacher workshops on "Contemporary Art and Visual Culture."
  • Saturday, Oct. 27, 7:30 p.m. Liberty Hall, 7th and Massachusetts: Concert by Fisk (University) Jubilee Singers, Nashville, Tenn.
  • Thursday, Nov. 8, 6 to 8 p.m., Spencer Central Court: KU student night : activities, music, food inspired by the Harlem Renaissance

Book discussions and a film series on the Harlem Renaissance are scheduled every Thursday evening at the Spencer. and elsewhere in Lawrence as part of the celebration of Douglas.

Aaron Douglas 1899-1979

Born to laborer parents in Topeka, Aaron Douglas was one of the first African American artists to portray racial themes within the context of modern art. His ambitious pursuit of justice through his work continues to influence artists today.

Douglas graduated from high school in Topeka. After earning a BFA degree in 1922 from the University of Nebraska, he moved to Kansas City, Mo., to teach two years at Lincoln High School. During summer 1924, he attended KU. In 1925, he moved to New York, where he joined the cultural flourishing known as the New Negro Renaissance or the Harlem Renaissance. His first job was in the mailroom of the NAACP magazine, The Crisis, edited by W.E.B. DuBois. Douglas eventually became an illustrator for The Crisis and other periodicals. He earned a master's degree at Columbia University and later taught at historically black Fisk University in Nashville.

A socially conscious artist, Douglas vividly captured the spirit of his time and established a new black aesthetic and visionÉ His work is the most powerful visual legacy of the Harlem Renaissance and has had a lasting impact on the art and cultural heritage of the nation.

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