Sheldon Museum of Art


Date of this Version





All images are copyright by the original artists. Publication copyright 2000 The Regents of the University of Nebraska.


T he presentation of Robert Colescott's groundbreaking solo exhibition, which represented the American Pavilion at the 1997 Venice Biennale, offers a unique opportunity for the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden to display a selection of African-American art from its permanent collection. This exhibition, entitled Black Image and Identity, serves several important purposes. First, it locates Robert Colescott, one of the most important and influential African-American artists of the twentieth century, within the broader historical context of a dynamic and diverse African-American visual arts tradition. Second, it focuses attention on the important influence that Colescott has exerted on younger artists who have been concerned with racial identity. Third and finally, Black Image and Identity reveals that there is no monolithic, static, and constant set of features called "black identity" but it is in reality subject to constant negotiation and construction. It is the contested and "unstable" status of what constitutes a "black identity" that has challenged artists who have chosen to engage the issue of black identity.

The history of the African-American contribution to national and international culture in the 20th century deserves a much more nuanced treatment than is possible in the scope of this brief essay. But it is useful for the purposes of this exhibition to sketch out at least the outlines of a series of developments as a framework within which Black Image and Identity can be viewed. W.E.B. DuBois's influential book, Souls of Black Folk (1903) attempted to destroy the 19th-century racial stereotypes by emphasizing the presence of a consistent and coherent "black culture." Artists such as Henry Ossawa Tanner contributed to such racial reconceptualization through paintings that communicated the humanity of black family and community life through the cultural idiom of white, middleFig. 3. Michael Rav Charles, While Power, 1994. class Victorian America. These intellectual and aesthetic attempts to articulate a black culture "fully human" formed the foundation for the so-called Harlem Renaissance of the teens and twenties. Over against the "Old Negro" of the 19th century, which dominant culture represented as subservient, always willing to please, and unable to engage serious culture, the Harlem Renaissance participated in reconstituting the "New Negro;' a concept that was both "isolationisF and "integrationist." On the one hand, the Harlem Renaissance focused on the distinct Harlem community as a "black community." On the other hand, the Harlem Renaissance portrayed the black intellectual and artist as fully equipped and capable of interacting and advancing high culture. James VanDerZee's photographs, two of which are represented in this exhibition, communicate quite profoundly the tension of this two-pronged conception of "Blackness," a phrase Richard Powell described as "always signif[ying] more- visually and conceptually--than it has been allowed to represent officially."