Scholar David Driskell on Aaron Douglas’s Painting “Let My People Go” | MetCollects

Scholar David Driskell on Aaron Douglas’s Painting “Let My People Go” | MetCollects

Aaron Douglas was
a leading artist, visual artist
of the Harlem Renaissance. He had come to Harlem
with the notion that this was the place to blossom. This was the place
to be revitalized. And so this is part
of what we see in his work, the revitalization
of his own life experience. In the 1920s, African Americans
reclaimed their own interest and commitment to the culture
of the Americas, but that emphasis was
on a return to Africa. African Americans
did not see themselves as a part of the godhead, and so he is painting
these figures black to sensitize the people to see that they were also
a part of God’s gathering. Instead of looking
at European modernism, Douglas went forth
to study very carefully the great empires of Africa–
Songhai, Mali– and he started incorporating
that into his drawings, into his paintings. Douglas was always cognizant of the importance of Egypt
in world history, but he wanted to connect that
to the African continent. He saw Egypt as part and parcel
of the African experience. A man by the name
of James Weldon Johnson called upon Douglas
to illustrate a book of sermons, and he called them
“God’s Trombones.” These served as the source for a number of the paintings
that Douglas did in the period. The theme “Let My People Go,”
Egyptian in nature, but was based
in what might be referred to as the Negro spiritual. He was doing something
which was twofold: he was looking
at Biblical history, but he was also looking
at the social plight– that African Americans were under the rule
of the pharaoh, so to speak. Stylistically,
he was able to express his own notion of modernism,
simplifying the forms so even a child would understand what it was that
he was portraying. The sphere represents war. The waves show the water’s
always free; it does what it wants to do. The beam of light–
enlightenment. In freedom,
there is enlightenment, and once you let people go,
they will be self-empowering. I would say this is a homecoming
experience for Aaron Douglas in that he is here
in the company of fellow artists who were looking
at the American scene, recounting it, redefining it, even though they did not
exhibit together, but they were creating
at the same time. It is the celebration
of his artistry which says that
this is really where he belongs.

3 Replies to “Scholar David Driskell on Aaron Douglas’s Painting “Let My People Go” | MetCollects”

  1. I can't believe it came from the 1930's. It would make modern graphic design outdated for more than 80 years. It looks totally 21st century! I have to explore at this man's work more…

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