Upstairs at the Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) is a show called After Tanner: African American Artists Since 1940, and it looks at the contributions of Henry Ossawa Tanner—arguably the country’s first African-American artist to achieve international prominence. The show is not simply about Tanner’s visual legacy—that is well-represented downstairs in Modern Spirit, the most comprehensive show on the artist to date. After Tanner is about the struggle he faced in becoming the kind of artist who makes it into history books, and how he became something of a hero to black artists after him.
“There were younger artists who visited [Tanner], made a pilgrimage to see him and to show him their work and be criticized, in the best sense,” says Robert Cozzolino, curator of Modern Art and senior curator at PAFA who organized After Tanner. “He did not take no for an answer to his aspirations, but rather found a way to make the career and life he wanted. And that is a profound story given the historical context.”
Though Tanner—who was lauded for his historically and ethnically accurate biblical scenes—was a dedicated student at PAFA, as the first student of color at the Academy he received a great deal of ill will from his peers. One of the most horrific stories of his time at PAFA, recounted in nearly every official Tanner biography and in the memoirs of his classmates, involves him being strapped to an easel and left in the middle of north Broad Street by white students in the early 1880s.
Fast-forward to the 1960s. Racial tensions remained high, but African-American students had access to academic institutions they could only once dream of. That dream, for people like James Brantley and other contemporary African-American artists in the making, included the Academy.
Brantley, a lifelong Philadelphian who has two paintings in After Tanner, began his pursuit of the fine arts while he was a student at Simon Gratz High School in North Philly. “The schools in our cities had opened up to African-Americans,” says Brantley, whose tenure at PAFA began in 1963. “It was like a renaissance. At PAFA, the registrar had never seen as many African-American students come or enroll in that institution before or since. We came in droves, and we produced.”
One of Brantley’s pieces, a large self-portrait purchased by Lewis Tanner Moore (the grand-nephew of Henry Tanner) called “Peace Piece,” is dedicated to that journey. “Across the center, the piece reads, ‘If the winter goes on, where will we be tomorrow? Keep the peace today.’ I wanted to reflect upon my journey into the army and off to Vietnam, spending a year there and coming back to the States, and feeling racial problems had become more pronounced than when I left after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.”
It is this shared sense of struggle among black artists—many of whom have works in the exhibit—that makes After Tanner so powerful. Many of the artists featured in the exhibition shared the struggle for equality experience together. Moe Brooker, a world-renowned artist still based in Philadelphia, with works in the most important collections in the world, was at PAFA during this period, along with landscape and life scene painter Richard Watson. Not only were these artists living and learning amongst each other, they were working together, creating visual evidence of a shared experience.
Case in point: After Tanner includes a 1968 portrait of Brantley by Barkley L. Hendricks, another renowned contemporary African-American artist Brantley studied with during his time at PAFA. In the 48-inch-tall canvas, Brantley depicts Hendricks as an ideal figure of black power. With his perfectly sculpted afro, blacked-out sunglasses and his hands firmly pressed in his trouser pockets, Hendricks’ image pops against the seething red of the oils, taking his space in the frame and in society, forcefully and unapologetically.
But even though a number of black artists were coming though PAFA to stake their claim to a world-class education, not everyone was happy to see them arrive, and they said so. Brantley recalls an incident at the Academy in which a white instructor told a black classmate that “the boy’s [bathroom] is in the back.”
“You can’t say that to an urban African-American male without consequences,” Brantley says. “There was a huge disruption in the bathroom that spilled into the corridors and into the classroom. It got really, really bad that he eventually had to apologize for it. There was a lot of that unspoken racism.”
Yet in spite of the institutionalized racism he endured as a student in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Brantley pursued a successful career as a painter. A self-portrait titled “Brother James” (1968) won first prize in a student competition at the Academy, which allowed Brantley to meet and study under local landscape-painting maestro Andrew Wyeth. The piece was eventually purchased by PAFA in 1970.
That’s not to say his journey was without struggle. Brantley spent years trying to navigate the gallery system in Philadelphia, having doors shut in his face and phone calls not returned. He says he continues to experience some of the same racial shutouts that followed him at the start of his career.
“If you go into any gallery in Philadelphia and ask for their list of artists,” Brantley says, “you’d be hard-pressed to find an African-American artist on the list of any of the major galleries. A lot of the galleries don’t have any. A lot of the excuses are that ‘We don’t know them’; ‘We haven’t heard of them’; ‘We don’t know that they’re around’; … blah blah blah. That’s nothing more than excuses. That’s not a reason.”
These days, Brantley says, galleries don’t seem to be focused on minority contributions. Curator Sande Webster, whose gallery was a haven for contemporary black artists, closed in October 2011. Despite that setback, Brantley and others are staying focused in the face of the adversity.
Unfortunately, the same number of black students aren’t enrolling or achieving in the arts now. This may have as much to do with the lack of opportunities to work as an artist as it does with the lack of opportunities to study as one. “When you go through high school now and the arts are being severely cut, art isn’t really an option,” he says.
“If you go back to the Academy now, and ask the registrar how many black students are enrolled, you’ll find maybe three. Art doesn’t seem to be an option for young African-Americans … ”
But in order to remain visible in the community, black artists say it must be. Otherwise, stories like Tanner’s—he allegedly was inspired to become an artist after walking through Fairmount Park with his father and seeing a black man painting a landscape—will cease to exist.
“We’re still out the pressing, pressing, pressing, trying to make a difference,” Brantley says of himself and his peers. “If someone doesn’t say it or see it, maybe it never happened. If we’re not documented, if we’re not collected, maybe we didn’t exist. We’re going to make our statements and then back out gracefully.”