Tag Archives: harlem

Exhibit captures evolving styles of Harlem-born Norman Lewis

There are two questions Ruth Fine has heard repeatedly from visitors emerging from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts’ comprehensive retrospective of work by artist Norman Lewis.

“Those who don’t know his work ask, ‘How is it possible we didn’t know this painter?’” said Fine, a visiting curator, retired from Washington’s National Gallery of Art, who spearheaded the exhibition. “And those who did know of him ask, ‘How is it possible we didn’t know him better?’”

Many of the works in Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis, which runs through April 3, are on public view for the first time. The exhibition in the Academy’s main gallery includes 95 paintings and prints and is loosely chronological with six thematic sections: Into the City, Visual Sound, Rhythm of Nature, Ritual, Civil Rights and Summation.

“I think people are surprised by what they see, the variety,” Fine said. “This is the first chance many people have to get a sense of what this artist did.”

The Harlem-born Lewis, who died in 1979 at the age of 70, first gained attention in the 1930s for his figurative and literal depictions of struggles facing his urban African-American community. He then began to experiment with abstract impressionism, the realm of painters like Jackson Pollack and Willem De Kooning, whom he later befriended.

Some African-Americans artists tried to discourage Lewis’s change in style, seeing it as “a betrayal of what they felt a black artist was supposed to do,” said Moe Brooker, a well-known African-American artist.

“His friends said: ‘You can’t do this. You’re supported to talk about the difficulties. You’re supposed to talk about the oppression,’ but he refused,” Brooker said. “He said: “I’m black, yes, but I’m an artist. I will not be limited to doing the kind of work that you think I should be doing.’ He’s interested in being a human being.”

“He continued to search and struggle to find ways to communicate human issues, which is what art is really about,” Brooker said. “Whenever I see his work, I’m introduced to something new and exciting and different. I constantly come and find inspiration.”

While Lewis did find success during his lifetime — in 1955, he was the first African-American artist to be awarded the Carnegie International Award in Painting, and New York’s respected Marian Willard Gallery represented and exhibited his work — he did not get the same recognition many of his white peers enjoyed.

One item on display at the Academy is a 1977 letter Lewis wrote to powerful art dealer Leo Castelli, in which he noted others of lesser talent were enjoying greater success. “I’m a good painter,” he wrote. “I have talent. … I could be an asset to your gallery.” There is no indication Castelli responded.

In addition to race, Fine believes Lewis may have fallen off the art world’s radar because he does not have a signature image and can’t be pigeonholed. Lewis’ works “are beautiful and important. They are distinctive, which is the most important,” she said.

And there is more to the exhibition than Lewis’ paintings. A companion show featuring 30 of his etchings and lithographs is on view in a neighboring building.

There are two questions Ruth Fine has heard repeatedly from visitors emerging from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts’ comprehensive retrospective of work by artist Norman Lewis.

“Those who don’t know his work ask, ‘How is it possible we didn’t know this painter?’” said Fine, a visiting curator, retired from Washington’s National Gallery of Art, who spearheaded the exhibition. “And those who did know of him ask, ‘How is it possible we didn’t know him better?’”

Fine said she couldn’t put a monetary value on the displayed works, comprising pieces from private and public collections.

There are two questions Ruth Fine has heard repeatedly from visitors emerging from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts’ comprehensive retrospective of work by artist Norman Lewis.

“Those who don’t know his work ask, ‘How is it possible we didn’t know this painter?’” said Fine, a visiting curator, retired from Washington’s National Gallery of Art, who spearheaded the exhibition. “And those who did know of him ask, ‘How is it possible we didn’t know him better?’

The Harlem Renaissance revived in Madison museum

The Harlem Renaissance, the rich period of African-American cultural, artistic and social growth in one of New York City’s most famous neighborhoods during the 1920s, seems miles and decades removed from Madison in 2015. 

But don’t tell that to the founders of the new Harlem Renaissance Museum, on Madison’s east side. They argue there’s no better time or place to tell the tale of one of the richest periods of social growth in American history and illuminate its connections to Madison.

“Madison has a vibrant arts community, has a diverse arts culture and is located in America’s heartland,” says attorney and Methodist minister David Hart, who helped co-found the museum. “We wanted to play homage to a fertile time in the history of arts’ creation and development. What better place than Madison?”

Hart, who also is a spoken-word artist, is part of a Madison arts collective whose members decided 12 years ago that they wanted to leave a more lasting impression on the community. They decided to establish a Harlem Renaissance Museum to do just that, and to highlight the Madison connections of several leaders in the movement. 

The museum, which opened its doors on March 28, has just 500 square feet of gallery space at 1444 E. Washington Ave. to house its 14 pieces of art, plus the mounted letters of Jean Toomer, an early 20th-century African-American author who spent time at UW-Madison. 

In true reflection of the period it honors, there is corresponding performance space so that different types of arts can mix and mingle in an offering as diverse as the Harlem Renaissance itself, says poet Peter Brooks, a UW-Milwaukee Ph.D. candidate in rhetoric and composition who acts as the museum’s unofficial academic adviser.

“The Harlem Renaissance was a convergence of identities, best known for African-American artists who tried to carve out their own niches,” Brooks says. “We had a concept that, thanks to the Internet, this (era) is sort of the new Harlem Renaissance in which we’re all trying to find creative avenues to talk about our lives.”

The Harlem Renaissance, known at the time as the “New Negro Movement” after out poet Alain Locke’s book of the same name, ran from 1918 to about 1934. In part the result of the great African-American migration from the South, its impact stretched throughout the Northeast and Midwest.

Literature was a key component of the movement, with writers including Toomer, Langston Hughes and James Baldwin rising to prominence. New music also emerged, from jazz artists like Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Thelonious Monk. Drama, art, fashion and dance also blossomed.

The connections between the Harlem Renaissance and Madison are many, Hart says. Locke also spent time teaching at UW-Madison, and the late Nellie McKay, a chaired professor there, is best known as co-editor of The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature.

The university even awarded Duke Ellington an honorary doctorate in the ‘70s and mounted a weeklong festival of his music, an effort for which the jazz great wrote his one and only polka.

But the true highlights of the Harlem Renaissance were the intellectual discussions and political discourse that emerged along with new and exciting art forms. This discourse is something the new museum hopes to replicate in the facility’s performance space, says Brooks.

“Along with giving African-Americans of the day an identity and voice, the politicizing of art was one of the Harlem Renaissance’s greatest contributions,” Brooks says. “Langston Hughes’ poem ‘Ku Klux’ mocks the rhetoric of the KKK and shows you how much of hate really is stupid. Mixing politics and art makes you think twice about what’s going on.”

The museum founders would like to see that discourse continue in a nonthreatening way, especially given the racial politics and tragic deaths taking place in cities like Baltimore, Ferguson, and even Madison.

“The museum is an open and affirming space in which we’re looking to do something innovative and showcase all the various Harlem Renaissance art forms,” Hart says. “We’re looking for thoughtful discussion about issues in a nonthreatening environment that allows us to have fun.”


The Harlem Renaissance Museum is at 1444 E. Washington Ave. in Madison. It is open noon-1:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays, on weekends by appointment and during live performances. For more information, visit the museum’s Facebook page. Donations can be sent to P.O. Box 762, Madison, WI, 53701.

Hundreds mark 50 years since Malcolm X’s assassination

Activists, actors and politicians gathered on Feb. 20 in New York City to honor civil rights leader Malcolm X with a ceremony at the Harlem site where he was killed 50 years ago.

About 300 people gathered to hear remarks from one of Malcolm X’s six daughters, Ilyasah Shabazz, as well as elected officials. The ceremony was held at the Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center, formerly known as the Audubon Ballroom.

A blue light shone onto the floor in the exact spot where he was killed. A mural with images of Malcolm X adorned a wall.

“He was just a young man who gave all that he possibly could,” Shabazz said after a moment of silence marking the time of her father’s death.

Malcolm X, whose full name was El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, was 39 when he was shot in the theater on Feb. 21, 1965, as he was preparing to address several hundred followers.

By the time he died, the Muslim leader had moderated his militant message of black separatism and pride but was still very much a passionate advocate of black unity, self-respect and self-reliance. Three members of the Nation of Islam were convicted of murder in his death. He had repudiated the Nation of Islam less than a year earlier.

In an interview with The Associated Press on the eve of the anniversary observance, Shabazz said she was pleased that the site is now a place for people to get a sense of empowerment.

“One of the great things about Malcolm is that he redefined the civil rights movement to include a human rights agenda,” Shabazz said. “So while we are focusing on integrating schools, integrating housing and all these other things, Malcolm said that we demand our human rights ‘by any means necessary.’ And that means … that we have to address these problems. That we have to identify them, and absolutely discuss them.”

Social and political activist Ron Daniels delivered the keynote address, calling Malcolm X a man of honesty and integrity. He ended his speech with chants of “Long Live Malcolm X!” as people stood and clapped.

The ceremony concluded with a reading by actor Delroy Lindo of a eulogy for Malcolm X that was written by the late actor and activist Ossie Davis.

Suspect walks free in NY transgender death case

The case against a suspect arrested in connection with the fatal beating of a transgender woman in Manhattan has been dismissed.

The Daily News says 20-year-old Paris Wilson left Manhattan criminal court earlier this week as prosecutors said they were not ready to move ahead in the case.

The victim, 21-year-old Islan Nettles, was attacked in Harlem in August. Police say she and a friend, another transgender woman, ran into a group of men who made anti-gay remarks.

Police say one of the men beat Nettles, who lapsed into a coma and later died.

Wilson was arrested on assault charges, but upgraded charges were pending because the victim died. His lawyer said Wilson never laid a hand on Nettles.

Prosecutors say the case remains active.

Transgender woman dies after weekend attack in Harlem

Islan Nettles, a 21-year-old transgender woman attacked in Harlem, N.Y., over the weekend, has died, according to The New York City Anti-Violence Project.

Nettles, according to the AVP, was out with a group of friends on Aug. 17 when a group of men began throwing punches and yelling anti-gay and anti-transgender slurs.

The incident occurred at about West 148th Street and 8th Avenue.

Nettles was taken to Harlem Hospital, where, on Aug. 22, she was declared brain dead and was taken off life-support equipment.

The New York City Police Department has made one arrest in connection with the attack and investigations continue by the NYPD Hate Crimes Task Force and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, as well as monitoring by the AVP.

The AVP is organizing a vigil for the evening of Aug. 26.

On Aug. 23, after learning of Nettles’ death, the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights group, issued a statement condemning “this horrendous act of violence” and calling on the NYPD to swiftly bring the perpetrators to justice.”

HRC said, “We send our deepest condolences to Ms. Nettles’ family, friends and loved ones and encourage those in NY area to join the AVP for the vigil Monday honoring her life.”

Civil rights museum to be built in Harlem

Plans are under way for New York State’s first civil rights museum to be built in Harlem.

The plans were announced earlier in Februry by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The officials said the museum will be built on a stretch of 125th Street between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Lenox Avenue/Malcolm X Boulevard. Officials say the Museum of the Urban Civil Rights Experience will use Harlem as a lens through which to view the wider civil rights experience in cities across America.

The museum will be housed on a 42,000-square-foot stretch of property that will also contain a new national headquarters for the National Urban League.

Mixed-income housing and multi-level retail space will also be provided for after groundbreaking occurs in 2015.