Educator Lauren Ridloff discusses a work by Archibald John Motley, Jr. in the exhibition Where We Are: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1900–1960.
The artist Archibald Motley captures this socially dynamic and vibrant area of Chicago during the 1930s. This area, called Bronzeville, is named after the skin color of the people who lived there. Poet Langston Hughes described the neighborhood as having “excitement from noon to noon.” That you couldn’t recognize the difference between midnight and day time. You can see a diverse group of people walking around in Bronzeville. Workers, gamblers, prostitutes, pimps, church folk, police officers, sinners, and children. All socializing together.
The subject matter in this painting is real. It is a real neighborhood, as is the diversity of the people. But some parts of the painting are ambiguous. Some characters and faces look real, while others look more like caricatures. See the man here? He’s bald, and has dark skin, exaggerated red lips, and big white eyes. He looks like a minstrel character. So I wonder, is he an actual person in this painting? Or is it a statue? All we can do is wonder. Motley explored the convergence of high and low culture. He wasn’t interested in social decorum or racial uplift. He chose to use humor and caricature to inspect social stratification in America. Especially in the African American community.
A 30-second online art project:
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