African American Artists during the Twentieth Century
Sargent Claude Johnson, Mask of a Girl (1926). Courtesy of the Newark Museum / Art Resource, NY
One of the few artists who worked primarily on the West Coast and yet is firmly associated with the Harlem Renaissance, Sargent Claude Johnson (1887–1967) frequently used African art for inspiration. Following the death of both of his parents at a tender age, Johnson's aunt, the Washington, D.C.-based sculptor May Howard Jackson, taught him an appreciation of African American culture and creativity that continued when he moved to San Francisco in 1915 to pursue a career as a professional artist. During the 1920s and 30s Johnson, who was sympathetic to philosopher Alain Locke's mandate for Negro artists to use African art as an aesthetic model, produced a number of hammered copper masks of varying degrees of abstraction. The wide eyes and full lips of Mask of a Girl demonstrates the artist's interest in celebrating African American physical beauty as does his choice of copper for its rich brown color.