Ackland Art Museum debuts exhibit on artist Aaron Douglas, ‘Modern Black Culture’

Harmony Cardenas

Visitors of the Ackland Art Museum will soon have a chance to experience a new exhibition featuring the works of Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas. 

Starting Friday, the exhibition, titled “Modern Black Culture: The Art of Aaron Douglas,” will include various works by the artist and will be available to the public until June 19.

‘Remarkable in its style’

Douglas was a particularly influential artist during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. His work visualizes ideas of Pan-Africanism, in particular those of Black achievement and creativity, according to Ackland website.

“I think that one think that interests me in Aaron Douglas’ work is the way that he understands modern Black culture as kind of a culmination of different artistic traditions of Black communities around the world,” John Bowles, associate professor of African American Art at UNC and curator of the exhibition, said.

One of the ideas behind the exhibition, Bowles said, is to help the community connect Douglas’ artwork with North Carolina. All pieces in the exhibition comes from collections in North Carolina.

“It’s a good chance for us to think about how a Black artist living and working in New York City could have an impact here in North Carolina a century ago,” Bowles said.

Bowles said that one section of the exhibition will discuss how Douglas’ art reached North Carolina. He created pieces for several colleges in the state, including UNC.

Allison Portnow Lathrop, head of public programs at the Ackland, encouraged UNC students and the greater Chapel Hill community to stop by to experience the exhibit.

“Aaron Douglas’ works, they look really cool like when you just see them digitally, but I’m really excited to be able to see them in person,” Portnow Lathrop said.

The exhibit will include poetry, murals, dust jackets, paintings and drawings. 

Some pieces in the exhibition come from UNC Libraries’ own collection of original books that Douglas illustrated or designed dust jackets for, Emily Kader, associate curator for the Rare Book Collection at the Wilson Special Collections Library, said.

“I think that all of Aaron Douglas’ work is sort of remarkable in its style,” Kader said. “He’s so recognizable and the Harlem Renaissance is one of my favorite literary periods.”

Upcoming events

The Ackland will be hosting several public programs related to the Modern Black Culture exhibit. The first event is a curator’s tour led by Bowles on Friday.

There will also be a mural walk on May 21 led by artist Kiara Sanders. She will speak about her “African American Trailblazers” mural and how Douglas’ work has influenced her own work.

“He had these very bright, colorful, fantastical paintings that both referenced Black culture at the time but also reference different parts of that history as well,” Sanders said. 

Sanders also described a current “renaissance” of Black art.

“In recent years, after the pandemic, after the protests, after George Floyd’s murder and everything — there seriously seems to me like there’s like a renaissance of art, especially amongst like Black artists,” she said. “And so one of the main people that came to mind when I was trying to look for inspiration of where to take (my mural) was Aaron Douglas.”

On June 3 and 4, the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham will hold performances of “God’s Trombones.” The multimedia production includes songs, sermons and some of Douglas’ works. Tickets cost $15 in advance and $20 at the door for adults. For those 12 and under, tickets are $7 both in advance and at the door.

Portnow Lathrop said she is excited for the “God’s Trombones” performances.

“It’ll show what Douglas was doing during the Harlem Renaissance but the performance will really be contemporary performers — even more contemporary music, kind of mixed in with the Harlem Renaissance era writing and art,” Portnow Lathrop said.

On the final day of the exhibition, June 19, the Ackland will host a Juneteenth celebration. Juneteenth is a federal holiday that commemorates the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States.

The Ackland’s Juneteenth event will include several family-oriented activities, such as an interactive tour, storytime and graffiti wall, but Portnow Lathrop said people of all ages are encouraged to attend.

The event will be tied in with the town of Chapel Hill’s Juneteenth celebration, she said.

Bowles said he believes the exhibit will serve as a good opportunity to consider the rich complexity of American history and culture.

“Modern Black culture I think for Douglas is the epitome of American culture,” Bowles said. “It’s the most American of American art forms.”

For more information, including the the event schedule click here.

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