Jacob Lawrence is one of the most prolific American artists of the twentieth century. As a painter, storyteller, and educator, he was among the first African American artists to be represented by a New York gallery, have his work featured in prominent art museums, and consistently receive recognition. His work is in the permanent collections of art institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Modern Art. Lawrence is known for his epic series that celebrate and chronicle the lives of everyday people alongside those of historical figures and pivotal events in the history of the African Diaspora. These extensive series of visual narratives include the Harriet Tubman series (1938 – 1940), The Migration of the Negro (1940 – 1941), The Builders (1947), and The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture (1986 – 1997), among others. He is acclaimed for an unparalleled modernist painting style, depicting his figures in geometric shapes and dynamic poses that he rendered in bold, contrasting primary colors.
Sparked by media images from Civil Rights events in the South, Lawrence created works that explicitly commented on racial injustice. In Praying Ministers (1962), Lawrence captures a poignant moment in the Civil Rights movement. A group of interracial and interfaith clergy members gather in prayer while flanked by two police officers dressed in riot gear. Lawrence emphasizes their somber resignation and despair by rendering the ministers’ kneeling bodies in dramatic contrasts of light and dark murky colors, with bowed heads and exaggerated, clasped hands. An assembly of protestors in the background sets and amplifies the tone for the urgency of the moment.
As the United States continues to grapple with racism and ongoing systems of oppression, Praying Ministers is unfortunately as timely now as it was then. This powerful work, and the entirety of Lawrence’s sixty-year career, serve not only as reminders of his involvement in using art as activism
, but also as meditations on the African American experience and the quest for freedom, equality, and dignity. Praying Ministers is currently on extended loan and featured in the exhibition Visual Art and the American Experience at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.