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Kunsthistorisches Institut

Rosa Sancarlo: From Ambiguity to Identity. Silhouettes and Silhouetting in the African American Art of the Harlem Renaissance and its Aftermath

To Rosa Sancarlo's KHIST profile page

Dissertation Project:

The research on silhouettes within the context of African American art has mainly concentrated on the brilliantly horrific compositions of contemporary artist Kara Walker. Her black figures at first innocently attract your gaze to the bright wall, and then ineluctably capture you in a confrontation with American antebellum horror scenes. Conversely, comparatively little scholarly attention has been paid to the role played by the silhouetted shape during the artistic developments of the heyday in African American modern history and culture known as the Harlem Renaissance, as well as during its Aftermath in the following decades – through the Great Depression of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The visual arts of these decades served as active vehicles for the opposition to generalizing negative stereotypes on the Black subject, for the affirmation of its multilayered nature and rich contribution to American society, and ultimately, for the establishment and development of a new, modern and self-confident Black individual, in the works of philosopher Alain Locke, the " New Negro". 

Taking African American Modernism as broad research framework, it is striking to notice that a popular visual motif of the period was the silhouetted shape, which through its features of reduction, generalization, and anonymity, seems to visually counteract the pursued goal of establishing a brand-new Black identity. For the silhouette seems to completely suspend identity due to its significant aesthetic of ambiguity, namely its characteristic of presenting indefinite and vague visual information caused by its lack of relatable bodily details and facial expressions. By specifically highlighting this aesthetic of ambiguity, this dissertation project poses the research question of whether and how the adoption and reception of the ambiguous visual object of the silhouette could have reflected the aspirations and contributed to the creation of a new African American identity.

The investigation will engage with the artistic activities of Aaron Douglas, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Lois Mailou Jones and Richard Bruce Nugent as principal case studies. Although numerous artists of the time made sporadic use of the silhouette, the five selected artists decidedly adopted it as integral part of their artistic productions in their entirety, or of pivotal periods thereof. Ultimately, I intend to read the adoption of the silhouette in the context of the African American modern art of the Harlem Renaissance and its Aftermath through the lens of the postcolonial concept of Third Space. Through an analysis of this theoretical paradigm and its connections to the use of silhouetted shapes in African American art from the 1920s to the 1970s, I intend to argue that the material and visual, abstract and intellectual space created by the silhouette can be read as a Third Space, first, for an action of resistance against the derogative image of the Black subject previously established in American visual culture; second, for the creation of a new – hybrid – African American identity; and third, for a strategic negotiation of a place for the Black community within the American society.