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A recently launched archive at the Smithsonian Institue celebrates the legacy of Charles White, an influential mid-20th-century artist and civil rights activist who passed away in 1979.
Digitized by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, the Charles W. White Papers span more than 17,000 images of biographical material, correspondence, writings, and photographs dating from 1933 to 1987.
White’s figurative drawings, paintings, and lithographs — mostly in black and white or sepia — were, in his words, “images of dignity” depicting the lives and struggles of Black Americans. A leading figure in the Chicago Black Renaissance and an active member of the New York and Los Angeles creative communities, White saw his artistic practice as a tool in the fight for freedom and equal rights.
He once said:
Art must be an integral part of the struggle. It can’t simply mirror what’s taking place. It must adapt itself to human needs. It must ally itself with the forces of liberation. The fact is, artists have always been propagandists. I have no use for artists who try to divorce themselves from the struggle.
The archive offers a collection of writings by and about White, including his addresses to the Annual Conference of Negro Artists from 1959–1960. Other materials include teaching files, gallery and exhibition files, scrapbooks, and personal items like awards and honors, family photos, and holiday cards. The archive also offers a finding aid for easy navigation between the thousands of documents.
White is also remembered as a respected educator who taught at the George Washington Carver School in New York City from 1943 to 1945 and at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles from 1965 until his death. Among his students were artists David Hammons and Kerry James Marshall.
“Under Charles White’s influence I always knew that I wanted to make work that was about something: history, culture, politics, social issues,” Marshall once said of his former teacher. “It was just a matter of mastering the skills to actually do it.”
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