Recent Acquisitions: Henry W. Bannarn, Midwife (Breath of Life), about 1940

Written September 01, 2006 by Kristin Swan

Hood Quarterly, autumn 2006
Barbara J. MacAdam, Jonathan L. Cohen Curator of American Art

Henry “Mike” Bannarn was an influential, academically trained artist intimately associated with the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s. In addition to his art, which was widely exhibited and admired in his day, he was revered for his role as a mentor to other African American artists. Together with fellow artist Charles Alston, he ran a studio/workshop at 306 West 141st Street (dubbed “306”), which served not only as a vital training ground for aspiring artists but as an informal salon for the exchange of ideas among African American artists, writers, actors, musicians, dancers, and political figures.

In this arresting work, Bannarn depicts a midwife slapping the first breath of life into the infant she holds upside down in her arms. The blocky, frontal presentation of the figure, the stylized facial features, and the rough-hewn surface reveal Bannarn’s “primitivist” aesthetic and his particular reverence for African sculpture. The figure’s compact, monumental form and powerful gaze also suggest the important role of the midwife in African American culture.

In many African societies midwives were held in awe as healers and ritual specialists who assisted with birthing and reproductive health, often prepared the dead for burial, and were thought to have supernatural powers. In America during the 1930s, midwives were still commonplace in rural areas and in poorer urban neighborhoods, including Harlem, New York. Bannarn’s work dates to the very period in which the medical establishment was attempting to eradicate—or at least control—the practice of midwifery in this country. This work would therefore seem to uphold the midwife as an emblem of African American culture in the face of challenges from the dominant white establishment.

Bannarn’s embrace of African art and culture was shared by many black artists of the period, who actively explored their racial identity and heritage and sought to make it integral to their art.

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Last Updated: September 01, 2006