Hale Woodruff’s The Art of the Negro mural cycle, 1950-1951, Clark Atlanta University

Beginning in 1931, Hale Aspacio Woodruff had been offering studio art and art appreciation courses at the Atlanta University Laboratory High School, located on the campus of Spelman College, in addition to the weekly art history courses he taught at Talladega College. As the University’s inaugural art instructor, Woodruff significantly enhanced the art department, establishing it as a hub for young Black artists. He had recently become acquainted with American Regionalism, which drove him to produce art that resonated with the Black experience. In Atlanta, he shifted his focus practice from abstraction to a more representational and socially aware style while pushing his students towards a more truthful approach, leading to their nickname, “the Outhouse School.” In a 1968 interview with Albert Murray, he explained that their landscape paintings often included the numerous outdoor toilets scattered across the hillsides around Atlanta.

At the same time Woodruff was working on his signature work, The Amistad Mutiny mural series for Talladega College (1938-1939), he had reached a verbal agreement with school President Rufus Clement to complete a series of murals for Atlanta University Trevor Armett Library. He described his vision as a series called “The Art of the Negro,” which would honor African art and inspire students visiting the library by connecting them with their ancestral art forms. By this time, he had studied African art’s forms and functions for about fifteen years. However, his initial proposal for the murals focused more on contemporary history and the current day than on African heritage. His idea was to create a mural featuring prominent figures such as educators W.E.B. DuBois and John Hope, artists like Joshua Johnson and Henry Ossawa Tanner, and modern figures like musicians Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson. However, the University did not have any money. The project was put on the shelf.

With Woodruff’s focus now elsewhere, in 1942, he launched the Atlanta University Art Annuals (1942-70). These annual national exhibitions provided a platform for African American artists from across the country to display their work while giving his students unique access to art they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Over the twenty-nine exhibitions, Atlanta University established a historic permanent collection of African American art, becoming one of the very first institutions to do so. In 1945, Woodruff and the University agreed to an extremely humble salary increase in return for the six twelve-by-twelve-foot panels mounted on canvases set within arched alcoves positioned above the library’s card catalog. However, we would be working on them from afar, as in 1946, Woodruff accepted a job as the dean of the School of Education at New York University, where he stayed until his retirement in 1968. 

In 1950, Woodruff began working on the six canvases of The Art of the Negro from New York. Eighteen months later, the project was finished; the canvases were rolled up, transported to Atlanta for installation, and formally unveiled on April 27, 1952. He described the mural as “a kind of token of my esteem for African art.” The paintings’ driving force comes from the commission’s unique time and location. Here, he was at a prestigious Black university in the segregated South, where he found the students had minimal engagement with their African ancestry. He wanted the murals to be timeless, spark interest in the young and the old, and pay respect to an unseen heritage.  

Woodruff wanted to challenge African Americans to reclaim their history and heritage, which had been systematically obscured and devalued by dominant Eurocentric narratives. His argument was that Black people must undertake the task of excavating and resurrecting their past; he wanted to shine a light on the universality of African art. He set out with six types of interpretations: African art as a fundamental aspect of African people’s lives; its influence on ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian cultures; and the devastation of African culture and life, exemplified by the destruction of African art by Europeans. He explored commonalities in the art of various peoples of color, the impact of African art on modernist abstraction, and the legacy of artists of African descent, highlighted by the repeated harm to African art by Europeans.

Woodruff employed two main strategies to integrate a narrative of African art’s influence on Western modernism while maintaining his abstract style. First, he applied stylization and fracturing of forms, reminiscent of African sculptures and modernist techniques, evident in the elongated limbs and abstracted figures in “Interchange.” Second, Woodruff introduced abstract zones within predominantly representational images, drawing attention to historical and symbolic elements that link traditional African art to modernist abstraction.

The first panel sets the stage by illustrating the origins of the African diaspora and predicting the profound impact African art and culture would have on Western civilization. Native Forms features three sections: the lower panel depicts a southern African rock painter, possibly a 19th-century Bushman painter; the middle panel shows craftsmen producing varied artworks, expanding the traditional scope of “African art”; and the top panel displays masked dancers and warriors around a central figure of Shango, the Yoruba storm deity. Right off the bat, Woodruff underscores his argument that African art is not monolithic but diverse and integral to societal functions, challenging the Western art historical narrative that often sidelines non-European art forms.

The second panel explores the dynamic exchanges between African and European cultures. Interchange captures the exchange of cultural elements as ancient Egyptians, sub-Saharan Africans, and Mesopotamian geometers analyze intricate forms, a Greek musician observes an African counterpart playing the kalimba from Zimbabwe, and a group of scholars admire a shield together. Here, Woodruff illustrates the profound influences of African art on classical antiquity and vice versa, suggesting a more interconnected historical narrative than typically acknowledged.

Dissipation graphically portrays the destruction and global dispersal of African art, featuring white men in early European colonial garb destroying sacred artifacts, overseen by armed figures symbolizing the forced labor and cultural theft during colonial times. For this mural, Woodruff goes more abstractly to emphasize the 1897 British raid on Benin City, showcasing the flames and plundered artifacts now recognized in Western museums, ironically leading to an increased appreciation of African culture among European intellectuals. 

The Parallels panel challenges the linear historical narrative dominant in 1950s art history by showcasing the artistic connections between diverse cultures, including Yoruba, Haida, and Melanesian, along with Mesoamerican and Ancient Pueblo symbols. This panel highlights the global fluidity and shared visual language across non-European art forms, such as African, New Guinean, and North American Indian, underscoring a collective artistic heritage that predates and informs modernist primitivism. By mixing elements from these various traditions, Woodruff promotes a broader, more inclusive view of world art, questioning the Eurocentric focus on representational realism.

Influences showcase the significant impact of African and Haitian art on European and American modernism, featuring fluid Haitian Vodou vévés alongside sculptures by Henry Moore and figures by Modigliani that echo African forms. Here, Woodruff illustrates how traditional African sculptures and motifs profoundly influenced modernist artists such as Picasso and Miró, positioning African art as a pivotal, active force in shaping modernist aesthetics globally. 

The final panel depicts intertwined Muses underscoring the case for authentic hybridity, showing an African muse side by side with a classical-robed Greek muse, overseeing a group of seventeen African and African American artists who have often been overlooked through history. This collection of artists spans centuries and includes notable figures such as the 19th-century landscape painter Robert S. Duncanson, standing between Jacob Lawrence and the South African cave painter Nada-Kane. Horace Pippin is shoulder to shoulder-with Iqueigha, the 13th-century sculptor. This panel highlights the synthesis of artistic traditions. It celebrates the enduring influence and diverse contributions of African and African American artists, challenging the conventional marginalization of their work in art history.

In The Art of the Negro Hale Woodruff transcended traditional boundaries in art by urging African American artists to embrace a broader spectrum of themes beyond the conventional subjects, aligning their work with universal and deeply emotional expressions. This vision was vividly realized in his murals, which not only celebrate the rich heritage of African art but also examine the complex interplay between African and Western histories, promoting a transcultural perspective that challenges and expands historical narratives. These murals serve as a dynamic educational tool and a cultural repository, continuing to inspire and enlighten by showcasing the power of art to bridge cultural divides, foster community pride, and provoke thoughtful discourse on race, history, and identity. As a permanent feature in the lobby of what is now the Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, they stand as beacons of knowledge and creativity, emphasizing Woodruff’s commitment to depicting the rich, interconnected narratives of the African diaspora and its profound influence on the global art landscape.