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The California African American Museum has a substantial collection of nineteenth century academic and naturalistic landscape paintings including the works of Edward M. Bannister, Robert Scott Duncanson and Grafton Tyler Brown. Studying works by these artists and their lives help us to broaden our understanding of the participation of African Americans in American life and culture and help us to understand the prevailing tastes and attitudes of a period when African Americans were viewed as inhuman and incapable of educational and aesthetic pursuits in life.
During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, many African Americans attempted to redefine themselves in a modern world by establishing a national cultural identity in all of the arts. As they became familiar with African sculpture, they began to incorporate those elements and iconography into their work. Their artwork was also informed by twentieth century Cubism, which leads to the deconstruction and reorganization of forms so that their compositions are read from multiple vantage points. These compositional considerations are significant to the development of many African American artists and are highlighted in the works of Sargent Claude Johnson, Charles White, Beulah Woodard, Noah Purifoy, John Outterbridge, Betye Saar, John T. Riddle and David Hammons.
Contemporary art from the African Diaspora is a small but growing collection and includes works from Haiti, Brazil and Jamaica. These artists are part of an international community of contemporary artists of African descent who combine techniques that may have historical precedence in European art, but have been reinterpreted within their particular cultural milieu. Artists include François Turenne Des Prés, Justino Marinho, Hector Hyppolite and Renee Constant.
African wood sculpture (mainly masks) forms a significant part of the collection. Most of the masks are from the West African countries of Nigeria, Ghana and the Côte d'Ivoire. There are also a number of works from the central African countries of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon. Along with the ceremonial masks are decorative household implements from across Sub-Saharan Africa. These works show the type of art historical context that African Americans participated in prior to coming to the United States. It was a context that was based on communal well being that encompassed ritual, mythology and cosmology that connected the people with their environment.
The History collection of the California African American Museum reflects the history, heritage and culture of African Americans in California and the Nation, thereby advancing the Museum's commitment to promote the study of African American history and culture. Noteworthy objects include artifacts and photographs from the estate of the trailblazing golfer Bill Spiller; items from the estate of legendary jazz performer Ella Fitzgerald; theater programs highlighting the highly acclaimed performances of Katherine Dunham, Dorothy Dandridge, Duke Ellington, and Janet Collins; and artifacts and photographs from the estate of Los Angeles' first and only African American Mayor Tom Bradley.