NORFOLK — The painting shows a market, with women preparing fish, smiling mothers as children play around piles of cattle bones, and sheep and chickens meandering everywhere.
Jacob Lawrence used bright yellows, greens and vibrant reds to portray scenes he witnessed on the streets of Nigeria – sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively – during his travels in Africa in the 1960s. Lawrence made a name for himself for his years of work highlighting African and African American life, but a focus on his time in Africa is on display at the Chrysler Museum of Art in “Black Orpheus: Jacob Lawrence and the Mbari Club.”
The exhibition will be on view until January 8 before opening in February at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
“Lawrence was really, pretty much a rock star in his day,” said Kimberli Gant, co-curator of the exhibit. Gant, a former Chrysler curator, is now curator of modern and contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum.
Lawrence, who is sometimes categorized as a social realist, was one of the first African-American artists to receive national acclaim and international appreciation, and his works are enduring.
“He’s one of the few African Americans, I think, who — for decades — has been really firmly established in the canon of art history,” Gant said, “not just in art. American, but I think, in art history, in general.”
Lawrence’s popularity lasted from the beginning to the end of his career. The son of Southern migrants, Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1917 and moved to Harlem when he was 13. He spent his teenage years among the burgeoning influences of the Harlem Renaissance, which had begun in the 1920s.
Lawrence showed an early predilection for art. Although too young to be considered a Harlem Renaissance painter, he was mentored by Renaissance artists such as Charles Alston and Augusta Savage.
His paintings depicted black life in mid-20th century America and were often featured in traveling exhibitions and purchased by institutions during his lifetime – the kind of reverence few artists in the Western canon lived long enough to see.
As early as the 1930s, Lawrence began producing rented works, many of which focused on the storylike his depictions of Frederick Douglass and the Underground Railroad. He became the first African American whose work was acquired by the modern Art Museum.
Even the federal government was interested, as the State Department promoted Lawrence through the Art in Embassies program.
It is the intersection of Lawrence’s work and his experiences with other artists around the world that connects the exhibition. Gant and co-curator Ndubuisi Ezeluomba, curator of African art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, designed the exhibition to explore three “interrelated moments” in 1960s Nigeria.
Lawrence and his wife, painter Gwendolyn Knight, first traveled to Nigeria in 1962 to exhibit paintings on the themes of oppression and triumph. Lawrence believed that Africans could identify with these parts of African American history. He met artists associated with the famous Mbari Artists and Writers Club, a center and gathering place founded in Ibadan, Nigeria, in 1961, as well as writers, poets and contributors to Black Orpheus magazine, A Journal of African and African American. Literature.
Black Orpheus, founded by a German expatriate and first published in 1957, had a aim: to encourage and discuss contemporary African writing.
Speaking at an event at the Chrysler Museum recently, Ezeluomba explained that there was already a “highly developed artistic culture in Francophone Africa” at the time of Lawrence and his wife’s visit.
But Nigeria, a former British colony, was not French-speaking and did not have an artistic culture as advanced as some of its neighboring countries.
The founders of Black Orpheus intended to make the journal an intellectual forum “where creatives in Anglophone Africa would also have a platform to document all the creative activities” that were taking place, Ezeluomba said.
While Lawrence is the headliner of the Chrysler exhibit, he is far from the only artist represented. The exhibition contains works by artists who were members or associates of the Mbari Artists and Writers Club or who contributed to the Black Orpheus journal.
First edition copies of Black Orpheus issues are displayed like works of art on a gallery wall. The exhibit includes a community gallery space with a reading section where visitors can browse pages and read copies of Black Orpheus, Gant said.
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“And if you don’t read the newspaper,” she said, “then you’re missing a very critical part.”
Colin Warren-Hicks, 919-818-8138, [email protected]
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Until January 8.
Where: Chrysler Museum of Art, 1 Memorial Place, Norfolk