From outside the deserted Wilmington building, passersby would have no idea that an authentic, nearly 70-year-old Aaron Douglas painting dominates the living room inside.
Douglas, the forefather of African American art and a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance, painted the mural in the home of Dr. William Goens in 1942.
The scene, with its shades of yellow, brown, blue and red, depicts Haitian women going to market, a man working in a field, foliage and an iconographic African sculpture. It is currently undergoing restoration efforts by Joyce Stoner and five student conservationists.
Stoner, a professor with the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, said the piece is “a wonderful example of Douglas’ work. It has his signature color palette and the use of the concentric circles.”
“That it exists in Wilmington is really incredible,” said Danielle Rice, director of the Delaware Art Museum, who calls the mural “an absolutely wonderful monument to African American art history, and a significant work of art in its own right.”
Haiti as a subject was of particular interest to black artists at the time, because of the Haitian Revolution.
“Haiti was seen as the first independent black nation in the Western Hemisphere, and that a nation of former slaves became free was a very important subject to African American artists,” said Camara Holloway, a University of Delaware art history professor.
“The mural is very modernist, but also retains aspects characteristic to Haitian art. The
women with baskets on their heads going to market was a characteristic Haitian vision.”
Holloway said the flattening of the figures, and the concentric circles, are aspects of modernism.
Harmon Carey, an advocate of the arts, considers the Haitian Mural possibly the most historic piece of African American art in Delaware. He acquired the building, which is now owned by a nonprofit.
“I spoke to some people, including Dr. Stoner, who said it was well worth preserving and that we should use whatever means necessary to encourage that. Steven Jones, an African-American art scholar in Philadelphia, said basically that if I didn’t make an effort to save this mural it would be a crime against humanity,” Carey said.