Harlem comes to town

13th June 1997 at 01:00
Michael Clarke previews the Rhapsodies in Black exhibition

The popular image of Harlem in the early 20th century is still largely The Cotton Club with its elegant, strutting young men and women sporting racoon coats and pomaded hair, but the Harlem Renaissance was a very much wider, deeper and longer lasting movement than is generally recognised.

Two previous exhibitions in the United States have drawn attention to the art of African Americans in the decade preceding the 1929 crash, but this show, starting at the Hayward Gallery in London and then touring, will not only be the first on the subject in Britain but the first anywhere to include books, magazines, photography, film and stage design and relate these to music, dance, literature, theatre and fashion.

By showing the connections with events and personalities in Europe (especially Paris) and Africa and following them to the outbreak of the Second World War, the organisers have gone beyond past notions of the movement as a brief outburst of black creativity restricted to a single district of New York.

This is an ambitious undertaking and we are promised an appropriately dynamic multi-media presentation. The music, dance and performance that were so essential a part of this renaissance will be interwoven with the literary and visual arts and there will be films such as Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates, made as a riposte to D W Griffith's Birth of a Nation, and a Jazz Cafe offering vintage performances by Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith.

Thematically divided into six parts with subsidiary sections, the exhibition will have a much more discursive character than the more usual chronological exposition. In the very first section, differing representations of "the new negro", from Meta Warrick Fuller's bronze "Ethiopia Awakening" through Richard Roberts's rurally-rooted characters to the better known Harlemites in James VanDer Zee's photographs, reject any stereotypical labelling.

At the very heart of the exhibition, in the two sections on "Blues, Jazz and the Performing Paradigm" and "The Cult of the Primitive", the wider dimensions are made emphatically clear. Alongside the paintings, sculptures and prints of African American artists - Aaron Douglas, Archibald Motley, Richmond Barthe and Palmer Hayden - and the performances of blues and jazz musicians, there are the photographs by the white American Doris Ulmann, pictures by the English Harlem enthusiast Edward Burra, set designs for Orson Welles's so-called voodoo Macbeth as well as Paul Colin's portfolio of lithographs, Le Tumulte Noir, and Marc Allegret's film Zou Zou. the last two are by Frenchmen and both celebrate the gyrating body of Josephine Baker.

Given the enormous impact of African American culture on music, dance, performance, fashion and graphics, the relevance of this exhibition is indisputable. The young of whatever racial or cultural background will be quick to respond. For primary children , the Hayward Gallery's education service is offering "Harlem Rhapsodies", organised with the London Sinfonietta, composer Errollyn Wallen and poet Jackie Kay.

For teenagers, workshops will explore the contemporary relevance of music, literature, film and fashion of the Harlem Renaissance. For all of us, there will be the hanging of banners on the route from Brixton to the Hayward, the result of a collaboration between the New York artist Glenn Ligon, the Brixton Artists Collective, Brixton Prison and the Strand Centre's Access Art course.

Teachers considering group visits should not miss the education open evening on June 20 when co-curators David Barley and Richard Powell will introduce the exhibition.

Whether they can make this date or not, all interested teachers should get hold of the exceptionally substantial information pack with its chronology, catalogue of Harlem Renaissance characters, documentary and colour image material, curriculum notes, thematic pamphlets and bibliography.

Rhapsodies in Black: art of the Harlem renaissance. Hayward Gallery, London, June 19-August 17 then touring to Arnolfini, Bristol, September 6 -October 19 and Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, November 1-December 6. Hayward Gallery education programme: 0171 921 O951 (group bookings: 0171 960 4249). Education programme at the Arnolfini: Lindsey Fryer 0117 929 9191. Education programme at the Mead Gallery: Amanda Daly 01203 524 732.

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