The Art Institute of Chicago's collection of African American art provides a rich introduction to over 100 years of noted achievements in painting, sculpture, and printmaking. Ranging chronologically from the Civil War era to the Harlem Renaissance and from the civil-rights struggles following World War II to the contemporary period, these works constitute a dynamic visual legacy.
Aaron Douglas completed this finished sketch in preparation for a mural he painted under WPA/FAP sponsorship for the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library in Harlem (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture). The four-panel series Aspects of Negro Life tracks the journey of African Americans from freedom in Africa to enslavement in the United States and from liberation after the Civil War to life in the modern city. In this study for the first panel, a man and woman in Africa dance to the beat of drums as concentric circles of light emphasize the heat and rhythm of their movements. A sculpture floating in a central circle above the dancers' heads suggests the importance of spirits in African culture.
Kansas-born Douglas was a leading member of the Harlem Renaissance, also known as the New Negro Movement, which flourished in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood during the 1920s. This period of intense creativity in the visual arts, literature, music, and dance inspired African Americans to be proud of the heritage of their race. In the early 20th century, European artists such as Pablo Picasso borrowed elements of African art for their own works. Douglas, however, was among the first African Americans to consciously incorporate African imagery, culture, and history into his art. Although he had never visited Africa, the painter was able to create this image from his imagination. It combines the influence of ancient Egyptian sculpture with the modern Art Deco style.