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How will history reflect that damage that “anti-woke” theorists are doing with the prohibition of teaching true history? The erasure of the experiences and contributions of African Americans has served to severely slant the way we see and understand one another, and further censures will certainly continue to diminish this understanding. Only time will tell, but what is being done to counter lapses that continue to render Americans ignorant of their own history, is being addressed through art.

"This landmark exhibition reframes the Harlem Renaissance, cementing its place as the first African American–led movement of international modern art,” said Max Hollein, The Met’s Marina Kellen French Director and CEO. “Through compelling portraits, vibrant city scenes, history paintings, depictions of early mass protests and activism,and dynamic portrayals of night life created by leading artists of the time,the exhibition boldly underscores the movement’s pivotal role in shaping the portrayal of the modern Black subject—and indeed the very fabric of early 20th-century modern art."


When Denise Murrell, curator-at-large for 19th and 20th century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was a student, she found that none of the survey courses of 20th century art included the Harlem Renaissance. Well regarded for curating the 2018 exhibition Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today, Murrell who holds an MBA from Harvard, a Masters in Art History from Hunter College, and a Ph.D. in Art History from Columbia University, is changing the narrative around the measure by which African American artists shaped 20th century America, with the recently opened exhibit The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism.

Oil painting of Black men and women enjoying wine and a picnic in a park with colorful clothing and umbrellas

Archibald J. Motley, Jr. (American, 1891 – 1981) The Picnic, 1936. Oil on canvas

© Estate of Archibald John Motley Jr. All reserved rights 2023 / Bridgeman Images, Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo by Juan Trujillo

This is not The Met’s first foray into exhibiting art focused on the Harlem Renaissance, but no doubt it will be more successful than the controversial 1969 Harlem on My Mind exhibition. In protest of the exclusion of major Black artists living in Harlem at the time, members of the assembled community advisory committee abruptly withdrew their support for the exhibition. The exhibit drew strong backlash and was picketed every day by members of Harlem’s creative community.


While Murrell has been clear that she has not been hired by The Met to correct the debacle of Harlem on My Mind, she has noted that one of the “bright spots” was inclusion of photography by Harlem life photographic chronicler James Van Der Zee. An archive of Van Der Zee’s work was established at (Black-led) The Studio Museum where in 1987 an exhibition on the art of the Harlem Renaissance was hosted. The new exhibit at The Met includes some never before shown Van Der Zee photography, a bright spot indeed.

Black and white photograph of an attractive Black couple in Harlem, wearing fur coats and standing next to a beautiful old car

James Van Der Zee, (American, 1886 – 1983) Couple, Harlem.

James Van Der Zee Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Gift of Donna Van Der Zee, 2021 2021.446.1.2

© James Van Der Zee Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art


The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism exhibit has borrowed heavily from collections held at Historically Black Colleges and Universities around the country, as well as from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, and private collections. The exhibit explores the comprehensive and far reaching ways in which Black artist portrayed everyday modern life, and includes some 160 works of painting, sculpture, photography, film, and ephemera to explore the new Black cities that took shape in the 1920s-1940s.


The exhibit is on view now at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, through July 28, 2024.

The Met Museum Plaza, image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art



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