Behind the Stately Mansions

On a visit to an apartment in Crown Heights, I noticed a big poster of Aaron Douglas from Fisk University. “My dad used to serve as president of the alumni association, so I am proud of this.”

Aaron Douglas, the founder of the Art Department at Fisk, was the central figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Among his most celebrated works, there is “Building More Stately Mansions” (BMSM) which is now treasured at Fisk University. Another smaller version was auctioned by Swann Auction Galleries in New York and sold to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)  for half a million dollars (hammer price).

BMSM, from every aspect, tells vividly the central role of Egyptomania in the Harlem Renaissance: It is a painting that honors the contributions black laborers made to great civilizations of the past.

Here is the RISD newsletter excerpt.

Douglas’ unique Modernist style emerged during intense engagement with other African-American artists, writers, and musicians whom he encountered when he moved to Harlem in 1925. His work celebrated the intellectual and artistic achievements of Africans and African-Americans, which were brought to life by Douglas in an impressive series of mural commissions. Building More Stately mansions symbolizes the labor of black men and women in the creation of great architectural monuments, silhouetting their active figures against a utopian background. Concentric bands of muted color suggest waves of history and knowledge, linking the builders of pyramids, temples, and churches to the skyscrapers of the present and anticipating future achievements.

Then came the touchy question? Can blacks rightly claim Egyptian cultural heritage?

Dr. Zahi Hawass commented that “Egyptians are not Arabs and are not Africans despite the fact that Egypt is in Africa.”

From what we understand now, Egyptians had no concept of racism, although they did look down upon the world outside of Egypt. For them, the world of Egypt is small and in peace and harmony. Chaos lay outside. Thus, at times, there were Nubian (African) kings ruling Egypt by being Egyptianized, but Nubia was a different country. What Aaron Douglas depicted, thus may only partially ring true: Africans came to ancient Egypt to work as soldiers, slaves, or other careers. Certainly, they contributed to the ancient civilization but cannot lay sole claim to it.

Interestingly, there is a painting by Aaron Douglas in the upcoming auction by Swann Auction Galleries. This is a lovely pastel portrait of Aaron’s wife, Alta. It is estimated between 15,000 to 20,000 dollars.

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