Portraits of the New Negro Woman: Visual and Literary Culture in the Harlem Renaissance (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, United States on 2009-08-19 00:46Z by Steven

Portraits of the New Negro Woman: Visual and Literary Culture in the Harlem Renaissance (review)

Volume 26, Number 1 (2009)
pages 182-184
E-ISSN: 1534-0643
Print ISSN: 0748-4321
DOI: 10.1353/leg.0.0069

Martha Jane Nadell, Associate Professor
Brooklyn College of the City University of New York

Cherene Sherrard-Johnson opens her provocative and intriguing book, Portraits of the New Negro Woman, with a reading of a painting by Harlem Renaissance artist Archibald Motley. One of Motley’s many portraits of mixed-race women in a 1928 solo exhibition, A Mulatress, drew a great deal of attention, even appearing on the front cover of the exhibition catalogue and in reviews of the show. Critics used a language of racial classification, rather than of painterly inquiry, to discuss Motley’s work; they described it and other works in terms of race and primitivism, rather than as meditations on line, color, or composition. Sherrard-Johnson uses the portrait and reactions to it to set up the central concern for her book: the aesthetically and culturally complex representations of the mulatta in the visual and literary work of the Harlem Renaissance. Images of mixed-race women—in novels, films, paintings, and illustrations—engage with racially inflected discourse, evident in interpretations of Motley’s portraits: Mulattas in Sherrard-Johnson’s visual and textual sources are simultaneously proper and primitive, domestic and desirable, civilized and sexual.  As such, they are most significantly also a central part of the Harlem Renaissance’s wrestling with race.

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