Archibald Motley Jr.'s Depiction of Dignity | Unheard History

       This Unheard History was supposed to come out on Valentine's Day but I've been tremendously sick this month so my priorities had to take a hard shift. (Resting? Me? HA!) This week's spotlight will be shed on someone that I initially thought I never heard of... Then I realized that I'd known him since childhood, I just never knew it. I think you'll too find you're more familiar with Archibald Motley Jr. than you realize.
         Who remembers this picture?
          Or this one?
Hot Rhythm
           Well, I do. I don't know if it's because I grew up with the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival (Northern Idaho/Eastern Washington thing) but these paintings and many more like this style were everywhere. I never knew the artist and honestly, I didn't care. I mean I was in elementary school at the time. Art to me was just there. Now as an adult I can't get enough of art. And in doing so I found my way back to fond childhood memories that I didn't even know I remembered. Those being of Archibald J. Motley Jr.'s paintings.

         On October 7th, 1891 Archibald John Motley Jr. was born into a mix-raced household in New Orleans, Louisiana. From his parents Mary Huff Motley and Archibald Motley Sr. he was Native-American, African-American, and European. Three years later the Motley family moved to Chicago, Illinois including Mary's mother, a former slave from British East Africa.
         Archibald Jr. was told many of her stories as a slave whilst growing up. Despite this clear exposure to racial prejudice, Archibald Jr. himself didn't experience such blatant prejudices until he left the Chicago south side (mind you a predominantly white neighborhood at the time) during World War I, when he and his father helped soldiers travel across the country to get to their designated bases.
       In an interview with Dennis Barrie in 1978, Archibald Jr. retold an encounter in Atlanta, Georgia with a streetcar conductor saying; "...I wasn't supposed to go to the front. So I was reading the paper and walking along, after a while I found myself in the front of the car. 
            The conductor was in the back and he yelled, "Come back here you so-and-so" using very vile language, "you come back here. You must be one of those smart'uns from up in Chicago or New York or somewhere." 
           It just came to me then and I felt like a fool. I was never white in my life but I think I turned white. I just stood there and held the newspaper down and looked at him. I walked back there. Then he got so nasty, he began to curse me out and call me all kinds of names using very degrading language. 
           I just couldn't take it.... I said, "Now listen here, I'm going to knock the so and so out of you," and I hauled back to hit him. 
        My father grabbed me, "Hold on, Arch, don't do that. You're in the South now. I'd like to see you around for a few years longer." I said, "I'd like to be around for a few years longer, too." So that was the end of that. We just got off the car...Oh, I was so angry I didn't know what to do. There was no reason for that. He could have spoken to me in a more-- in a lower tone. 
       But he wanted everybody in the car to know that he was in control."1
Portrait of My Mother, 1919
       This incident along with Chicago's south side race riots of  1919 pushed Archibald to combat racial tension in America through his art. Going back a moment, after graduating high school, Archibald was offered an architecture scholarship by his father's friend but instead turned it down in favor of studying art at the Art Insitute of Chicago from 1913-1918. His modernist-realist works went against the classical and conservative training the school was striving for at the time. Not impressing other students, his work caught the eye of his father's friend who offered him a scholarship and actually paid for Archibald's tuition!

Bronzeville at Night

        Now graduated from the Insitute and surviving the race riots that kept him and his family locked indoors for six days and killed 38 people, Archibald's awareness of boundaries and consequences that came with race were pushed more so than ever especially considering he was "ethnically ambiguous" given his multiracial background. This always made him feel as if he didn't belong to any uniform group and that he saw race as a diverse spectacle. Given his social status however he was acutely aware of his socioeconomic and sociocultural boundaries of race. Thus his goal became to use his own advantages in life to uplift the black community through the depiction of positive individuality.
        Also, this gave Archibald Jr. an opportunity to immerse himself in black culture and get "to know his own people" as he did not grow up in the black community per say. His works were in stark contrast to how the community was portrayed in the public. At the time it was pretty popular for African-Americans to be depicted in degrading and inhuman ways:
A 1910 postcard shows an immodest Sapphire beating and berating her husband. (From Understanding Jim Crow)
          Archibald, on the other hand, went about depicting dignity in the community as so many contributors of the Harlem Renaissance did by giving his subjects individuality "worthy of formal portrayal." He dismantled these ugly stereotypes perpetuated by the Era of Jim Crow and the lasting ramifications of the Slave Trade by displaying the rich cultural variety of African-Americans that captivated a wider audience.
Archibald and Edith
         During this time, in 1924 he married his high school sweetheart, school teacher Edith Granzo. Her German immigrant parents opposed their interracial marriage and disowned her for it. This did not deter the relationship as they were married for twenty-four years until her untimely death in 1948. He often used her as a subject for his works.

Mending Socks, 1924
       It was three years after his marriage when Mending Socks earned Archibald the most popular painting of the Newark Musem in New Jersey. A year later in 1928, Archibald was awarded the Harmon Foundation award. While also becoming the first African-American to have a one-man exhibit in New York City. He sold 22 out of the 26 exhibited paintings. These accomplishments soon paved the way for Archibald to also become the first black artist to have a portrait depicting a black subject displayed at Chicago's Art Institute. (Full circle!)
        His later works were influenced heavily when in 1929 he was granted the Guggenheim Fellowship and studied in France for a year where he became inspired by Renaissance artists such as Delacroix, Hals, and Rembrandt.
      In all of Archibald's works, whether they were classical or modern, he always strived for individuality within the community. (Except for the two girls in Hot Rhythm but I digress.) It's easy to make all your subjects faceless stereotypes without thinking about the deadly ramifications. It's harder to make them go against the stereotype and show a new side that was denied for so long. Archibald expressing and learning about a part of who he is through his paintings broke down barriers.
Barbecue, 1960
         It's in these times when looking back at history that you can see how representation has changed our worldviews and the course of history. Archibald defied the stereotypes and prejudices of the day by combating it with his own work that exuded true beauty and artistry of the human world. He paved the way for celebrating the black community rather than condemning it.
         I'm so happy I took the time to revisit these paintings from my childhood and learn about this amazingly inspirational man. You see an artist's work and you see the details and understand a story unfolding in the mixture of paint and canvas but there is always so much more to art than that.
       Art is reviving humanity. Art is conveying culture. Art is falling into an understanding of our past.
      So here's a glass raised to Archibald Motely Jr. for using his platform to bettering our perception and cultural understanding in a country and time that so desperately needed it. To this day we can look at his work and life as an example of doing better in this world by simply creating.
Black Belt, 1934



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