As we toured the Modern American Paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago, a few of the students from Innovations High School stopped to look at Eldzier Cortor’s oil painting, The Room No. IV (1948). One of the female African-American students immediately commented that the angular figures lying on the bed were naked and black. She said to me, “Why they always gotta do us like that?” “Like what?” I asked. “Whenever they show us in paintings, we always gotta be poor. All of us sleeping in one bed.” “Well,” I responded, “maybe we should read more about the artist who painted it. I don’t really know a lot about this piece, so maybe we can figure out why these people are all sleeping together.” As I read aloud from the title card that accompanied the painting, we each discovered that the artist is an African-American woman who recreates everyday scenes of hardship in urban communities. “Oh,” the African-American student said. “I guess she’s just painting something that she lived through.” I informed her that as an artist, that’s a very difficult thing to do. You’re sharing something personal about yourself for everybody to see, whether it’s sad or just embarrassing. I asked the student, “Would you be able to share something personal like that about yourself?” The student just shook her head. “Not for everybody to see like that.”
The African-American student’s exposure to art museums was limited, but she had seen enough representations of her race and culture in art to make her initial comment. It was like she felt that the portrayal of African-Americans in art had to include some element of hardship. You couldn’t just have black figures sitting together socially in a diner, like in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942)—which we had seen moments before. Poverty had to be displayed through the cramped living conditions, disheveled bedroom, and nude African-American figures.
Our discussion prompted me to defend the role of African-Americans in art, not just the identity of the artist who created a piece, but how African-Americans were represented. I told her about the Harlem Renaissance and how the paintings from this era were alive with color and movement. They were about music, dancing, and culture. I informed her there was art like that in the Institute we could look at, but she just lightly nodded and looked away, never mentioning it again.
I suppose if I could go back to the discussion I had with the student about Cortor’s, The Room No. IV, I would have made an effort to include the whole group. The group was almost entirely African-American, except for one Hispanic student. We could explore the issues artists face in including personal elements in their work. It’s like a life story, except that it’s a snapshot of a moment in time. I would have asked the students what it means to be honest in their work. Then, I would have asked why some artists choose to display serious hardships, while others choose to represent the more joyous moments in life. Is there room for both, particularly when it comes from an artist with a difficult upbringing, regardless of their race or gender?