African American Arts

There is a great diversity of talents and styles to be found when researching the African American arts.  The earliest African American artists were enslaved craftsmen and women usually assigned to perform non-artistic tasks but their talents and creativity were expressed in their daily performance nonetheless.

For the fortunate few whose artistic gifts were noticed and accepted by their white owners, more formalized training in the arts became possible and some truly fortunate artists were allowed to keep wages earned by way of their artistic endeavors.  Oftentimes these wages enabled the artists to buy freedom for themselves and their families.

The earliest examples of the African American arts can be seen in functional items such as quilts, baskets, pottery, and woodcarving.  These everyday objects adorned with creative talents of the enslaved artisans of the time provided the opportunity for creative expression while serving to enliven and beautify an otherwise heartbreaking and dismal existence.

The decorative embellishments found on these beautifully rendered items often depicted scenes rich with symbols and codes that conveyed family histories and events.  During the days of the Underground Railroad, quilts often had encoded directions from one safe house to the next sewn into the design of the fabric.  Often the quilts were woven with designs representing the stars in the night sky, which served as astrological codes to safety.

Everyday activities, crops grown, and animals tended were common subjects of the African American arts during the earliest years.  Births, deaths, and marriages were commemorated in artworks since formally documented evidence of these events were not available to the slave communities.  Since it was forbidden for most slaves to learn to read and write, formal documents were of little value anyway.

Other common themes of the early African American arts relied upon influences from Africa, often serving to tie the artist to his family’s ancestral home.  Spirituality is another theme common with the early African American arts and religious icons and rituals from the African homeland were routinely intertwined with religious practices inherent in the American culture of the era.

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