Although the Harlem Renaissance was a profound moment, a period of history that marked the remarkable cross-section of so many artists and thinkers of Black America in a particular north Manhattan neighborhood, it’s also a movement that is timeless. There was no one genre, but an amalgamation of consciousness and experimentation that extends to the dynamism we see a century later. Aaron Douglas, the subject of Sermons, an exhibition on view now at the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia, was a painter, illustrator, muralist, writer, and teacher. He was the sort of artist who expressed himself in craft, collaboration, and conversation; the conduit at the center of this exhibition that unites contemporary dialogue with the Renaissance itself.
“I think Sermons is really trying to get the students to see how expansive that time can be,” explains curator DJ Hellerman, “but then also trying to use contemporary artists to push back on a narrow reading of that history. The Harlem Renaissance that I learned about in school was much narrower, a much more specific kind of Harlem Renaissance than the Harlem Renaissance I uncovered while doing research for the show; whether it’s queerness, how diasporic it is, but then also how geographically expansive it was in terms of the United States.”
Showcasing Kara Walker, Diedrick Brackens, and Khari Johnson Ricks, among others, Sermons was organized as a wide-ranging conversation, and as the museum put it, the “constellation of connection” that is exposed when surveying such an influential era in American history. What SCAD MOA accomplished, and what resonates, is that art is alive, a story to be revisited and reimagined. “The show is meant to mimic the process of researching in a lot of ways,” Hellerman said, “where you stumble upon something, and you rethink something, and you reconsider it. I think a show like this makes more room for other people. I think it’s a way to be expansive. It’s a way to be generous, and it’s a way to be more open. So I think you can see almost every artwork from every vantage point in the show. And that was really intentional to create that kind of openness as opposed to more of a linear.” Through an often-overlooked master like Douglas, the exhibition shows how history pulsates through the decades and can be revitalized through contemporary dialogue. A sermon for the ages. —Evan Pricco
Aaron Douglas: Sermons is on view at SCAD MOA through January 23, 2023 // This article was originally published in our Winter 2023 Quarterly