Indeed Harlem Is Everywhere

A rancid and myopic review of a new exhibition at Tate Britain of fashion and John Singer Sargent was making the rounds this week. The dismissal of fashion as an unworthy nuisance to the proper appreciation of Sargent’s great painting was so caustic, you didn’t have to see the show to know he was wrong.

And as if to prove the point, Jessica Lynne dropped a two sentence intro to the latest episode of her podcast, Harlem Is Everywhere, produced as a companion to the Met’s new exhibition, The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism, that also perfectly accounts for the Sargent show: “Portraiture has to do with how an artist sees a person. Fashion has to do with how we want others to see us.”

The people in portraits in early 20th century Harlem used fashion to communicate sophistication, respectability, and social credibility to a larger world that regularly ignored, doubted, rejected, or oppressed them. And making portraits was itself a highly symbolic social act, on the part of the artist as well as the subject.

Though they were deeper in the WASP-y heart of the white supremacist class structure, the subjects of Sargent’s paintings, often some combination of American, Jewish, or nouveau riche, could be seen making the same assertions in the face of the same forces.

Listening backward, the first episode of Harlem Is Everywhere sets the Harlem Renaissance in the context of the work of W.E.B. Du Bois [HBD, btw] and Alain Locke, and The New Negro anthology, and the movement’s relationship to nascent Modernism.

[update: OK, the Once Again trailer from the Barnes Collection page is itself pretty spectacular]

Which, the next podcast in the queue last night turned out to be the new season of The Art World: What If…?!, where Charlotte Burns spoke with composer and musical artist Alice Smith. Smith’s transcendent presence is a highlight of Isaac Julien‘s five-channel video installation, Once Again…(Statues Never Die), commissioned by the Barnes Foundation in 2022. Once Again depicts the interactions between Locke and the Foundation’s founder, Albert C. Barnes, using enactments of their correspondence and Locke’s own foundational text from The New Negro anthology, “A Note On African Art.” [The longest Julien excerpt I can quickly find online is from last year’s Sharjah Biennial. It’s not enough.]