Aspects of Negro Life

Artist: Aaron Douglas
Medium: Mural at Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYC, NY (formerly New York Public Library’s 135th Street branch)
Date: c. 1934

In 1934, Aaron Douglas was commissioned, under the sponsorship of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the first relief program for artists sponsored by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, to paint a series of murals for the135th Street branch of the New York Public Library.

One his best-known works, the Aspects of Negro Life series is characteristic of Douglas’s style, with graphically incisive motifs and the dynamic incorporation of such influences as African sculpture, jazz music, dance, and abstract geometric forms. The four panels chart the progression of African Americans through slavery, the Reconstruction period, the Northern Migration, and the Great Depression. Using a stylized vocabulary, Douglas conveyed political and social messages and included allusions to Marxist theory that he and others in Harlem studied in the mid‐1930s.

The series reveals the bold modernist risks Douglas was prepared to take at a time when regionalism was the norm. The layered, condensed space, geometric forms, and silhouettes draw on African, cubist, and constructivist motifs in an allegorical representation of issues central to African American history and contemporary life.

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