Jacqueline Frances: The Harlem Hospital murals are modern in terms of their presentation of figures. When we compare them to naturalistic painting of the nineteenth century, which present figures with much more volume, with spatial depth, with naturalistic colors, we see the Harlem Hospital murals as modernist projects.
Figures are rendered flatly, the colors that describe their bodies as well as their clothing and their environments are descriptive rather than local. So that is modernist abstraction in a great degree by itself. Certainly the spatial organization of figures is also a modernist strategy, and quite different from what would happen and what we see happening in the United States in the decades and certainly the centuries before.
I think often with some of the WPA administrators, they expected a sort of racial art. And actually that's a term that's broadly used in that period. Racial art was used to refer to also Jewish Americans, Asian Americans, i.e., a sort of Orientalism, was expected, and certainly there was an expectation that there would be something lively and reflective of the Negro quote personality.
In the case of Hayes and Alston they decided to do a sort of narrative of the African diaspora, that is, to narrate African Americans' past in Africa as they imagined it in the period. While they could do some historical research, you have to remember that it's the 1930s when so little research had been done on Africa. The idea that Africa had a past and a culture was very new to a lot of Americans, black and nonblack. Interestingly, when we look at these murals today, we don't necessarily see a strongly delineated African narrative, we see something that really comes out of popular cultural understanding of what Africa is, that is to say, drums and ceremonies and dancing and ritual and mystery and magic.
The murals fall into disrepair as time goes on. Alston's diptych in fact is hung over a radiator where there's no hood, so there's much damage being done to this work of art. They went without notice, without care, without conservation. In the 1970s there were cries, after an article was published in the 1990s about them, and finally here we are in the twenty-first century and they're getting the attention they deserve.