Music serves as inspiration in selected African and African American works of art presented in Conversations. Transcending race, nationality, and culturally specific narratives, the artworks embody music as a universal language and consider the human relationships that form around its playing in urban and rural settings.
While not presenting a comprehensive history of this complex topic, our exploration of this theme allows us to examine the ways in which music was—and remains—significant in African and African American communities.
- How works of art depict musicians, musical instruments and styles, and the settings in which music is played
- How artists evoke the rhythmic and improvisational qualities of music through form, color, and other visual cues in their work
- How African and African American artists link music to the rise of urban centers and to the formation of modern black identities
Africa’s traditional arts emphasize the importance of music in sculptures depicting musicians and in beautifully made instruments fashioned of wood, ivory, iron, copper alloy, animal skins and hides, gourds, and other materials.
The shared experience of music on a city street is the focus of Jacob Lawrence’s Blind Musician. A crowd gathers outside a bar, enraptured by the spectacle of a blind musician playing a guitar with his foot. The musician was perhaps one of the characters Lawrence encountered while working on his Harlem series (1942–43), thirty paintings devoted to everyday life in the neighborhood. Lawrence, with his particular brand of narrative abstraction, tells rich stories of Harlem life in flat, simplified shapes and a limited palette.
Malick Sidibé’s Nuit de Noël (Happy-Club) evokes the social settings in which music is experienced and relationships unfold. The 1963 photograph captures a charming and intimate moment as a smiling and fashionably dressed young couple dance together, heads not quite touching, at a Bamako nightclub.
I love how Jazz Age Chicago comes to life in Motley’s Stomp. A diverse crowd of fashionable women in flapper styles and elegant men in suits comes together in this decidedly urban and modern milieu. Motley gives us a glimpse into an era when jazz music and dance were taking the urban centers by storm and, through the new and infectious sounds, suspending social barriers.—Adrienne L. Childs
Expressive brushstrokes and rich hues, like the lively strains of a jazz riff, play across the canvas of Iba N’Diaye’s Hommage à Bessie Smith. Partial views of musicians portrayed in the act of playing complete the energized mood of a jazz club and a global musical form that unites Africa and its disaporas.
Sitting In at Barron’s, by Romare Bearden, is set in Barron’s Exclusive Club, a well-known 1920s Harlem nightclub that catered to affluent white people and celebrities both black and white. The piano player in a derby could be a young Duke Ellington or Fats Waller, whose music and theatricality defined the jazz of that era.
Bearden’s aesthetic is often considered a formal manifestation of jazz rhythms. Certainly the seemingly improvisational quality of his collages, the syncopation of elements, and the interaction of tones and colors evoke a jazz sensibility. In addition, Bearden’s dedication to the narratives of black music traditions is borne out in his career-spanning interest in the image of the black musician.
The structures and rhythms of urban life are captured in striking black-and-white, modernist prints by Oluwole Olayemi and Adebisi Fabunmi, who form part of Nigeria’s Oshogbo movement, which began in the early 1960s and is ongoing.—Christine Mullen Kreamer
Jacob Lawrence’s Street Scene, Harlem is a bird’s-eye view of the variegated urban environment that includes apartment buildings, hotels, churches, a bar and grill, and more. While the composition is largely structured by the interplay of buildings in an almost abstract pattern, Lawrence includes humanizing details such as stained-glass church windows, clothes hanging from a rooftop clothesline, and children playing jump rope on the street. Lawrence’s teeming urban views reveal the public spaces where black identities are negotiated and shared.