Racial equality has long been a sensitive topic in the United States but typically when the issue arises, the conversation typically centers around career opportunities, salaries or political aspirations. Recently, the debate has been resurrected in the world of art. In many instances it's not the artist that is frustrated, in fact, in many cases the artists have long since passed away. Instead, it is the people who appreciate this art that seem to be disappointed and seeking a more visible stage for the pieces to be appreciated by the world.
American artists of African descent pre-date even the official formation of the United States itself. Early black artists were often actually slaves and many of their works were not framed and hung in a gallery, but rather they were portraits of their master's family or hand-crafted items created for use by their masters. In fact, the ability to paint portraits could lead a slave to having special privileges or even allow him to barter for his freedom. In today's society it's difficult to imagine the amount of pressure that was endured by these men. Although many artists are self-critical and known to possess an inner drive to improve their skill, it's impossible to think that any duress felt by an artist today could match that felt by a man who's very freedom depended solely on his willingness and ability to hone His self-taught skill to the very highest level. This may explain why many in the inner circles of the American art scene feel so consistently that African American art has yet to receive the recognition and respect that it describes.
Some of the first widely recognized African American artists including Patrick Henry Reason (1817-1850) of Philadelphia and Joshua Johnston (1765-1830) of Baltimore, who were both well-respected portrait artists. These men gained both recognition and respect for their craft in a time when many African Americans struggled to even make a living in a society dominated by whites. There is no doubt that the hard work and success of these men helped pave the way for hundreds of African American artists that followed.
One such artist was Edward Bannister, who experienced his own hardships and persevered to find success. Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901) was actually born in New Brunswick, Canada, but he experienced the racial inequity in the United States first-hand when he moved to Rhode Island in 1871. Although he founded the Providence Art Club and received praise from Numerous artists that appreciated and respected his work, he did not immediately receive the respect and admiration of everyone in the art world. In 1876, he became the first African American artist to receive a national award when he won first prize at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.
However, he would later recount that the experience was not exactly pleasant when he went to claim his prize. Neither the officials nor the bystanders were happy to be asked by the colored man or respond to his inquiries about the prize winning painting. Those that paid any attention to him, glared and made rude comments about why it mattered to him which painting won the prize. It was only after he explained that he was the artist that their attitudes changed and the official apologized. Experiences like this one nearly 100 years after Patrick Henry Reason began painting portraits for wealthy families help frame the cultural environment that many African American artists have resorted to in an effort to utilize their ability and make a living. For more information on African American artists visit the Smithsonian Institute online at http://www.si.edu/ .
In 2007, over 200 years after the first African American artists developed a reputation for their talents and works of art, hundreds of pieces are displayed throughout the country from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to the Chicago Art Institute to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC However, few people could actually name an African American artist. Their works span the history of our country covering major turning points in the development of the United States such as the Civil War and the civil rights movement. The artists themselves have experienced their own movements, most notably the Harlem Renaissance which introduced African American art of all sorts to all ethnic groups. It is because of these facts that many art historians feel the art community around the world has been missing out on a large piece of American history that was documented through the works of African American artists.