Black Belt

Archibald Motley, Black Belt, 1934. Hampton University Museum, Hampton, Virginia. Photo by Valerie Gerrard Browne.

All of my life I have sincerely tried to depict the soul, the very heart of the colored people by using them almost exclusively in my work. Sometimes it is possible to bring the subject from the sublime to the ridiculous but always in a spirit of trying to be truthful.1 

Black Belt is Motley’s first painting in his signature series about Chicago’s historically black Bronzeville neighborhood. Cinematic, humorous, and larger than life, Motley’s painting portrays black urban life in all its density and diversity, color and motion.2

Black Belt fuses the artist’s memory with historical fact. In this composition, Motley explained, he cast a “great variety of Negro characters.”3 The scene unfolds as a stylized distribution of shapes and gestures, with people from across the social and economic spectrum: a white-gloved policeman and friend of Motley’s father;4 a newsboy; fashionable women escorted by dapper men; a curvaceous woman carrying groceries. Beside a drug store with taxi out front, the Drop Inn Hotel serves dinner. These details, Motley later said, are the clues that attune you to the very time and place.5 Meanwhile, the ground and sky fade away to empty space — the rest of the city doesn’t matter.6

Capturing twilight was Motley’s first priority for the painting.7 Motley varies the hue and intensity of his colors to express the play of light between the moon, streetlights, and softly glowing windows. The Harmon Foundation purchased “Black Belt” in the 1930s, and sent it to Baltimore for the 1939 Contemporary Negro Art exhibition. At the time white scholars and local newspaper critics wrote that the bright colors of Motley’s Bronzeville paintings made them “lurid” and “grotesque,” all while praising them as a faithful account of black culture.8 In a similar vein, African-American critic Alain Locke singled out “Black Belt” for being an example of a truly democratic art that showed the full range of culture and experience in America.9

For the next several decades, works from Motley’s Bronzeville series were included in multiple exhibitions about regional artists, and in every major exhibition of African American artists.10 Indeed, Archibald Motley was one of several black artists with consistently strong name recognition in the mainstream, predominantly white, art world, even though that name recognition did not necessarily translate financially.11

The success of “Black Belt” certainly came in part from the fact that it spoke to a certain conception of black art that had a lot of currency in the twentieth century. At the same time, the painting defies easy classification. Critics have strived, and failed, to place the painting in a single genre. Is it first an artifact of the Harlem Renaissance and the New Negro? Or is it more aligned with the mainstream, white, Ashcan turn towards the conditions of ordinary life?12 Must it be one or the other? Locke described the painting’s humor as “Rabelasian” in 1939 and scholars today argue for the influence of French painter Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and his flamboyant, full-skirt scenes of cabarets in Belle Époque Paris.13

Today, the painting has a permanent home at Hampton University Art Gallery, an historically black university and the nation’s oldest collection of artworks by black artists.

References

[1] Archibald Motley, “Autobiography,” n.d. Archibald J Motley Jr Papers, Archives and Manuscript Collection, Chicago Historical Society

[2] David Baldwin, “Beyond Documentation: Davarian Baldwin on Archibald Motley’s Gettin’ Religion,” Whitney Museum of American Art, March 11, 2016, https://whitney.org/WhitneyStories/ArchibaldMotleyInTheWhitneysCollection

[3] Motley, “How I Solve My Painting Problems,” n.d. Harmon Foundation Archives, 2.

[4] Archival information provided in endnote #69, page 31 of Jontyle Theresa Robinson, “The Life of Archibald J. Motley Jr” in The Art of Archibald J Motley Jr., eds. Jontyle Theresa Robinson and Wendy Greenhouse (Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 1991)

[5] Oral history interview with Dennis Barrie, 1978, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution: https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-archibald-motley-11466

[6] Baldwin, “Beyond Documentation: Davarian Baldwin on Archibald Motley’s Gettin’ Religion,” 2016

[7] “How I Solve My Painting Problems,” n.d.

[8] Alain Locke, Negro Art Past and Present, 1933

[9] Foreword to Contemporary Negro Art, 1939

[10] “Black Belt” for instance returned to the BMA in 1987 for Hidden Heritage: Afro-American Art, 1800-1950, a survey of historically underrepresented artists.

[11] Mary Ann Calo, Distinction and Denial: Race, Nation, and the Critical Construction of the African American Artist, 1920-40 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007)

[12] Samella Lewis, Art: African American (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), 75.

[13] Yolanda Perdomo, “Art found inspiration in South Side jazz clubs,” WBEZ Chicago, August 14, 2015, https://www.wbez.org/shows/wbez-news/artist-found-inspiration-in-south-side-jazz-clubs/86840ab6-41c7-4f63-addf-a8d568ef2453

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