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Black Arts Movement Exhibition Opens


Three Dudes by Ben Jones. Silkscreen, 1974. Used by permission of the artist.

When the Amistad Research Center was founded in 1966, the Black Arts Movement (BAM) was barely a year old. The Center and BAM share not only close anniversary dates, but the Black Arts Movement is well represented within the Center’s archival, library, and fine arts collections. As part of Amistad’s own 50th anniversary year, we are showcasing the Black Arts Movement in an exhibition currently on display through December 16, 2016.

In a 1968 essay, scholar and writer Larry Neal described the Black Arts Movement as the “aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept.” Envisioned as a “cultural revolution,” the Movement was not seen as a form of protest, but rather sought to establish a movement within the arts that was based on Black aesthetics. While most notably visible within theater and poetry, African American artists in other areas, including music, painting, and sculpture, drew heavily from African-inspired themes that were molded to reflect the contemporary African American experience. Kalamu ya Salaam has described the Movement as: “Both inherently and overtly political in content, the Black Arts movement was the only American literary movement to advance "social engagement" as a sine qua non of its aesthetic. The movement broke from the immediate past of protest and petition (civil rights) literature and dashed forward toward an alternative that initially seemed unthinkable and unobtainable: Black Power.”

Front cover of Sonya Sanchez’s 1971 poetry collection It’s a New Day: Poems for Young Brothas and Sistuhs.

For all its proliferating contributions to the arts, BAM was not without detractors. As Hannah Foster wrote: “Although the creative works of the movement were often profound and innovative, they also often alienated both black and white mainstream culture with their raw shock value which often embraced violence. Some of the most prominent works were also seen as racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and sexist.” Many works put forth a black hyper-masculinity in response to historical humiliation and degradation of African American men, but usually at the expense of some black female voices.

However, artists within the Black Arts Movement were not a homogenous collective in deed and thought. The Center’s exhibition explores the multi-faceted nature of BAM through Amistad’s various collections. The exhibition begins with a discussion of the transformation of poet, playwright, and critic LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka and his foundation of the Black Arts Repertory Theater School, which is often viewed as the start of the Black Arts Movement. The exhibition further explores BAM’s intersection of art and politics, the role of women and notions of feminism/gender/and sexuality by BAM artists and writers, regional variations within the Movement, and the tensions that occurred during the course of its development.

Promotional flyer for BLKARTSOUTH, circa 1969.

The exhibition is on display in the Center’s Reading Room and mezzanine Exhibition Gallery now through December 16, 2016. Public hours are 8:30 am to 4:30 pm Monday-Friday and 9:00 am to 1:00 pm Saturday.

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