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.