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The MFA’s closer look at African American Art

Jacquinn Williams
The MFA’s closer look at African American Art
(Photo: courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Author: courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, BostonAaron Douglas (American, 1899–1979), 1930 Gouache. The John Axelrod Collection—-Frank B. Bemis Fund and Charles H. Bayley Fund.

 Beauford Delaney (American, 1901–1979) Greene Street, 1940 Oil on canvas.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The John Axelrod Collection — Frank B. Bemis Fund and Charles H. Bayley Fund (Photo courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The Museum of Fine Art’s recently launched self-guided tour of African American art allows museumgoers a glimpse into the lives of black artists from the 19th century until today.

The multimedia tour highlights 10 major works with an introduction of the art and the artist. Edmund Barry Gaither, executive director of the National Center of Afro American Artists lends his voice and expertise to the Views and Voices section for each piece. Gaither provides insight into the chosen works, as well as historical context.

 From the “Yellowstone Geyser” by Grafton Tyler Brown to “The Rich Soil Down There” by Kara Walker to “Jewelry” by Art Smith, the tour shows a variety of talent and art making methods.

Of the works presented, “Cocktails” is one of the most interesting.  It shows African Americans in a unique light.

“I think ‘Cocktails’ is a painting with lots of hidden dimensions to it,” Gaither said. “Motley was from New Orleans, Catholic and had a mulatto background. These are powerful forces. Interracial color lines were associated with class.”

“In the picture their pedigree is hinted at by portraits on the wall,” Gaither explained. “This gives you a sense of who they are. There are also hints of Catholicism in the room and there’s a servant. That’s also associated with class.”

John Axelrod, who helped make the exhibition possible, has a different take on “Cocktails,” according to Gaither.

“He thinks it’s a brothel space,” Gaither said. “Brothels have a major place in history. It’s where cross-racial coupling occurred. But, I’m not convinced. I’m thinking these are upper-class women who enjoy a high level of appointment. They are enjoying all of the things that signal that they have arrived. These women are of an equivalent similar to white people.”

Another piece that sparks dialogue is “The Storage Jar” by Dave Drake.  Drake’s jar is a massive work of art with the maker’s name carved into the jar.

“Dave’s jar is remarkable in size and that there’s writing on it,” Gaither said. “It’s a South Carolina product and Drake was working in a slave state. It was a time where you could lose your life for reading. But it’s also helpful to [Dave’s] owners if he knows how to read.”

In addition to the ten works highlighted, there is audio and video available about other African American works at the museum that give further insight into the collection and the time in which the art was produced.

 For more information on the self-guided African American art tour visit