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Alain Locke’s Exhibitionary Complex: Building an African Art Museum in 1920s Harlem

Thu, Oct 6, 2:00 to 3:50pm, Richmond Marriott Hotel, Richmond Marriott Hotel Salon B-AV Room


In this paper, I place Alain Locke’s ambitions to establish the Harlem Museum of African Art within a longer history of African American cultural politics, particularly the politics of display. Locke’s writings, relationships, exhibitions, and collecting practices document his desire to set the agenda for how the public would view and interpret African American heritage and culture. A staunch proponent of cultural pluralism, Locke fashioned a particular image of African-American identity that promoted the study of ‘the ancestral arts.’ For Locke, the African past was essential to African American cultural expressions. Thus, he urged New Negro artists to embrace a repertoire of African tropes and styles in their work as part of their contribution to the world of ideas via literature and the arts. The Harlem Museum of African Art illustrates how Locke capitalized on the hypervisuality of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by building a cultural institution that would bring authority to his primitivist vision. As self-appointed “dean” of the New Negro Movement, Locke attempted to establish himself not only as curator of a cultural institution, but as curator of a cultural movement that would define Negro aesthetics for all the world to see.