Like other intractable figures of the Harlem Renaissance, the movement’s visual artists sometimes exceeded their expected parameters, and thus their anticipated representativeness of a locality. Their images, in other words, did not automatically disclose Harlem-bound or even US-bound concerns. Now familiar through continual reproduction in exhibition catalogues, scholarly monographs and literary compendia, certain artworks from the period – such as Archibald J. Motley’s Blues (1929; Figure 1) and Aaron Douglas’s Congo (c. 1928; Figure 2) – subverted any definition of the Harlem Renaissance that would hinge on a narrowly delimited urban geography or national imaginary. Motley, who painted ‘Blues’ during a stint in Paris (rather than in his native Chicago, or Harlem), explained that his subjects – musicians and dancers in a café ‘practically on the outskirts’ of town – were ‘all people from Senegal, people from Martinique . . . people from North Africa and French people, but no Americans’ (Barrie np). Douglas, from his Harlem studio, differently dreamed up mystic rituals performed in a timeless Africa, and cultivated a modernist sensibility by fusing Art Deco aesthetics and Ancient Egyptian figuration.
Moreover, and besides manifesting in subject matter and style, Harlem Renaissance internationalism developed through direct cross-cultural encounters. The transcontinental itineraries of Harlem Renaissance artists are by now well documented in literary and historical scholarship and in art-historical projects. However, whereas previous work has largely focused on ‘New Negro’ and diaspora connections, my premise here is that international conceptualisations of a ‘renaissance’ also merit consideration. Examining the term’s evolution abroad offers a framework for situating interrelated developments in places like Oxford, Cairo, Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Johannesburg in addition to the better-known ‘overseas’ locales of London, Paris and Havana. The purpose of this inquiry is neither to detract from the importance of Harlem as a cultural hub, nor to impose an African American model onto a wider art history. Rather, it is to chart how international perspectives fed into and were furthered through the Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s in the United States.
Cohen, Joshua I., "Harlem and Abroad: Notes to an International 'Renaissance'" (2019). CUNY Academic Works.