Representing African American history through art at the PMA

When the Philadelphia Museum of Art purchased Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “Annunication” in 1899, it became the first work by an African American artist to be acquired by a major American museum. The PMA’s collection of African American art has since grown to nearly 800 pieces, a selection of which makes up “Represent: 200 Years of African American Art,” now open.

The exhibit, which features works by more than 50 artists, grew out of the museum’s efforts to create a catalogue of its collection. Museum director and CEO Timothy Rub credited that initiative largely to the Museum’s African American Collections Committee, formed more than two decades ago. “It’s always been one of the most cherished wishes of the members of that committee that we make this material more publicly accessible,” Rub said during a tour of the exhibit. “It was a labor of love.”

The resulting catalogue highlights more than 160 pieces from the Museum’s collection, offering a broad overview of the range of its holdings by African American artists. That selection was further pared down to create “Represent,” which traces a timeline from pre-Civil War pieces of fine and decorative art through the Harlem Renaissance and the abstractions of the 1960s to provocative work by contemporary artists like Kara Walker and Glenn Ligon.

The catalogue was largely the work of consulting curator Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, who explained the show’s title arising from the multiple meanings that the word “represent” contains.

“In colloquial terms, ‘represent’ has come to mean to stand for something, to represent anything that’s come before you, your community, and the way that you want to be shown to the world,” she said. “This exhibition and catalogue really do that; they represent the collection to Philadelphia and the world, and show the diversity of approaches that black artists have taken to being creative and to the responsibility of representing themselves and their communities.”

In the collection

The exhibit includes the large storage jar created by enslaved potter David Drake, whose inscription flies in the face of prohibitions on literacy for slaves; Horace Pippin’s haunting “The End of the War,” recalling his own service in World War I; Barbara Chase-Riboud’s monumental bronze and fiber dedication to Malcolm X; and Walker’s series of provocative prints tracing the dark legacy of the slave trade.

“Opportunities like this are ways of not only sharing our collection but putting works of art in conversation with each other in new ways,” Rub said. “These new conversations are always interesting and surprising, and enrich our understanding of individual works of art and the context from which they arise. And this, of course, is a very rich and interesting historical narrative.”

Represent: 200 Years of African American Art

Through April 5

Philadelphia Museum of Art

26th Street and the Ben Franklin Pkwy.


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