African-American art on display at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Eldzier Cortor's Eldzier Cortor’s “Dance Composition No. 34”
Credit: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

In “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” one of the essays collected in his 1903 masterwork “The Souls of Black Folk,” W.E.B. Du Bois suggested that to be considered true American citizens, African Americans needed to engage in its cultural life. DuBois wrote, “This, then, is the end of his striving: to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture, to escape both death and isolation, to husband and use his best powers and his latent genius.”

That quote inspired the title of PAFA’s new exhibit, “Spiritual Strivings:A Celebration of African American Works on Paper,” opening Friday. The exhibit brings together two related shows under one umbrella: the first, “The Kelley Collection,” offers a concise history of 20th-century African-American art through the extensive collection of Harmon and Harriet Kelley, while “Eldzier Cortor: Theme and Variations” focuses on the work of a single artist through a recent gift of more than 50 prints and printmaking materials from Cortor to PAFA.

“I think W.E.B. Du Bois was saying that cultural expression is just as important as any other aspect,” says curator Anna Marley. “With their collection, the Kelleys are trying to highlight that spiritual striving and show that through African-American art, that call that Du Bois put out at the beginning of the century is fulfilled.”

The Kelley show is complemented by the Cortor exhibition, which closely examines the work and methods of the artist, who draws inspiration from the Surrealists as well as traditional African art.

An unofficial third part of the exhibition comes in PAFA’s recent acquisition of “Newport, Rhode Island,” a landscape painting by 19th century African-American artist Edward Bannister, which Marley encourages visitors to view in conjunction with “Spiritual Strivings.”

Putting together the collection

John Woodrow Wilson's John Woodrow Wilson’s “Street Car Scene”
Credit: PAFA

San Antonio OB/GYN Harmon Kelley and his wife began collecting art that reflected their own heritage in the early 1980s, Marley says. “They started collecting at a time when auction houses were not necessarily selling African-American works of art, and they were able to buy some really phenomenal works. I think they would admit that if they started collecting today, they wouldn’t be able to do what they have done, which is assemble one of the best collections of African-American art in the country.”

The PAFA exhibition includes more than 70 works on paper from the Kelley’s collection, including pieces by Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, and Jacob Lawrence, with Philadelphia-area artists including Henry Ossawa Tanner, Horace Pippin and Dox Thrash. Marley organized these century-spanning works into themes of resistance, spirit, environment, family and labor. The thread that runs through all of these themes is the idea of countering negative stereotypes of African Americans through depictions of their strength and dignity.

‘Spiritual Strivings: A Celebration of African American Works on Paper’
June 27-Aug. 31 (Cortor) and Oct. 12 (Kelley)
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
118-128 N. Broad St.
$12-$15, 215-972-7600

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