There has always been a special place for Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “The Banjo Lesson” in my personal exploration, understanding and connection to art. “The Banjo Lesson” is a high point in Art History as well as a pleasurable, visual feast for the connoisseur. Tanner executed this work with his usual mastery of technique, light, color and composition. He chose to provide two light sources, emanating from the left and right of the central figures; the soft light from a window and the gentle glow from a fire place. The composition draws the eyes to the central features of the young boy and the older teacher/grand-parent figure. The work emotes with a purity of heart from a tradition dating back to the baroque period. The sentiments are genuine here and Tanner excels.
This particular work (The Banjo Lesson) and Tanner himself were of personal importance simply because after years of creating and studying art in school and independently it failed to expose me to the works of any African Ancestry Artist. I was being denied something that I should have been able to take for granted; the knowledge of visual artists of African descent. A definite and defiant part of me knew these artists existed but I was in some kind of vacuum that was failing to acknowledge any historical or contemporary example of creation or culture. I had learned of the works of Winslow Homer (The Gulf Stream) and Norman Rockwell (New Kids in the Neighborhood.) These are two works of note that I still enjoy but I needed to experience the creations of great Black Artists for reference and as a connection of spirit. The early seventies were still a time of exclusion for “artists of color.” Books, magazines and videos failed to produce evidence of any Black aesthetic. Yet; I was destined for that element of my life to be remied.
My room-mate at Ferrum College; Addae Jahi, would land a job in what was then called the AV (Audio/Visual) Room that changed what seemed almost futile; my search for an African American identity in art. While looking through the AV archives He found a multi-media production devoted to African Americans in art and culture. The production featured the works of many greats ranging across fields. Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence and Lois M. Jones were featured as visual artists; I knew nothing of them before. This was a treasure trove to me. It was Tanner’s work that stood head and shoulders above the others from my then point of view. Addae had found something of incalculable value; a thing iconic in nature, my first viewing of “the Banjo lesson.” Tanner was the quintessential African American Artist.
Since my initial encounter of “The Banjo Lesson” in video I have seen it reproduced in many other forms including: books, posters and digital. I even had the great fortune a few years ago of seeing the original where it resides at Hampton University in my home state of Virginia. I remember climbing the stairway into the gallery; seeing the seminal, distinctive work of Tanner on the opposite wall and then standing before it. I remember within that moment of loosely bridled passion a total rapture, a cosmic blessing, all vanities replete and somehow my existence complete.