By J. K. Schmid, Special to the AFRO
“1939: Exhibiting Black Art at the BMA,” is a recreation of a historic debut of Black artists from a February exhibition in 1939.
“Contemporary Negro Art,” the original exhibit, was the first of its kind at the BMA and one the first on the national arts scene.
Dox Thrash. Griffin Hills, c. 1940. The Baltimore Museum of Art, BMA 1942.35
The BMA, under new leadership in 1937, commissioned a survey of its surrounding community. Henry E. Treide, the president of the BMA board of trustees, then established a committee made up of business, labor, civic and other groups to implement the new mission.
One such group, advocating for Baltimore’s Black community, included greats such as civil rights activists, lawyer and Maryland’s “101st Senator,” Clarence Mitchell, Jr., Sarah .A Collins Fernandis, president of the Baltimore Women’s Cooperative Civic League, and the AFRO’s then publisher, Carl J. Murphy.
It was Fernandis who headed the “committee representing the colored community” according to BMA archives and it was she who wanted Black artists and their experience to be the focus of the new exhibit.
“Contemporary Negro Art” was on display during what was then called Negro History Week (the precursor to Black History Month), the week of Frederick Douglass’ and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays.
The two year delay from the 1937 resolution was due to the time necessary for the 29 artists and 116 pieces to be collected.
“Richness for Color and Feeling For Form Characterize Show With Varied Subject Matter,” is how the Baltimore Sun described the exhibit.
Black newspapers were more enthused.
“While we shall be happy and pleased that a large number of Whites will have an opportunity to see what the group is doing in this field, the most important effect, we hope, will be the stimulation the exhibit will give our young men and women who have artistic ability,” the AFRO wrote in 1939. “To this end, every public and private school teacher, every social worker, every minister and professional man and woman should lead some young man or woman to this exhibit.”
The BMA appears committed to this mission. Jack Whitten, born in 1939, remains on display in his own exhibit at the BMA.
“I think one of the things that’s most clear for the 1939 show was that the subject matter and the media was vastly different,” Morgan Dowty, curator of the new exhibit, told the AFRO. “There was no common thread, other than the race of the artists; I think that was something Alain Locke was excited to display: the range of where Black artists were fitting into American art as American artists were finding their voice in the global art world.”
Alain Locke, the first Black Rhodes Scholar, philosopher, “Dean” of the Harlem Renaissance, and Howard University was another member of the city committee.
“We’re going to let our children know that the only philosophers that lived were not Plato and Aristotle, but W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke came through the universe,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said of Locke in 1968.
On display now at the BMA is a collection of works by the same artists that debuted in ‘39. Prints, paintings and archival resources are on hand to provide historical context.
Noteworthy examples include Dox Thrash’s Opheliagraph technique. Invented by Thrash, named for his mother, and more commonly referred to as carborundum mezzotints, his stark, smoky print “Glory Be!” is on display alongside the bold and bright watercolor “Griffin Hills.”
Not every work or artist could be recovered for the show. Many of the ‘39 works have found their way into the permanent collections of historically Black colleges, the Smithsonian, or were lost to the ravages of time.
One such work, Ronald Moody’s 1937 Elm sculpture “Midonz” disappeared for decades before finally being found and purchased by the Tate Museum in 2010.
“1939: Exhibiting Black Art at the BMA” will run until October 28.