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Henry Ossawa Tanner is an African-American artist. His paintings played a great role in establishing the topic of social injustices in America during the slavery era. His main determination was to end slavery and advance human rights as well as offer equal opportunities for both Africans and Americans. Being born in a free black family, he was a victim of slavery as his town of Kansas was destroyed during the pro-slavery war between the forces and the guerrillas. Most of his paintings depict images of slavery and how children and women were affected during the slavery era which was the height of social injustice.
Images (Paintings) on Social Injustice
Tanner’s paintings cover three main areas, how Africans were exploited economically, academically and socially. His painting “The Banjo Lesson” gives a vivid picture of the evils committed to Africans, the black community. He tries to be set free from slavery. His painting try to give the blacks hope, inspire them to continue in their struggle for freedom giving them hope that one day they will be free (Tanner, 78). Notably, slavery was legally recognized before it was abolished at the end of 18th century. Tanner developed a thematic analysis of slavery. Black Africans were forcefully taken from their land and shipped to the United States where they became properties of their masters. Their rights were immediately taken away. Moreover, their children automatically were becoming slaves by themselves. They worked on the plantations as well as on other large farms that were growing rice, tobacco and sugarcane among other cash crops. Later, chattel slavery was established which implied that white masters were allowed to own human beings as well as their descendants.
In the 16th and 19th centuries, about 12 million blacks were shipped to the United States (Bonilla, 125). They were exposed to hard living among other forms of acute exploitation. Slavery was mainly characterized by harsh treatment. This highly depended on the conditions, place as well as the time. The worst forms of treatment were brutality, degradation as well as inhumanity. These were accompanied by whippings, executions as well as rapes (Sanders, 531). As depicted in the Tanner paintings. These were eminent in situation where Africans were employed by the white masters. In addition, they were denied a chance to learn to read and write (Schneider et al. 136). This was a major conspiracy in order to hinder them from getting enlightened and forming alliances that would defend their rights. Through this painting, Tanner gives a glimpse of hope to the blacks in slavery that one day they will be able to live happily. Indeed, they will reach true happiness that would culminate to their freedom.
Moreover, “The Banjo Lesson” depicts the emotions that people in slavery went through. The nature of exploitations was so intense that they thought they would never be free. Virtually, Africans were not given a chance to acquire education. This was a major indicator of social injustices that existed among the African-American context (Tanner, 18). The whites had chances of attending best schools as well as acquiring college degrees. This resulted into a cycle of poverty as Africans could not get sufficient education that could enable them to seek better paying jobs. Therefore, economic success was prominent among the whites while Africans were forced to work for their white masters, especially on plantations. On the same, we can see that occupations and incomes were significantly lower than would be expected to their educational achievement (Schneider et al. 155). Thus, even employers discriminated Africans in terms of salary among other job incentives. Notably, Africans had to work harder for their success which was not the case with the whites. The major argument that was used as a basis of exploitation was that the blacks were biologically inferior. They naturally were less intelligent and prone to make various flaws in their life. They also were viewed to have lower IQs reflecting their intelligence inferiority. Therefore, the whites maintained that there was no need of making education accessible to them. Thus, there was a stronger racial discrimination in early days than it is the case today (Sanders, 525). Africans were viewed as inferior beings that were unable to contribute to the achievement of the American dream. These justifications were used to mitigate slavery and harassment among other forms of exploitation. At the beginning of twentieth century, racial discrimination was at its peak. During this era Africans experienced violent exposition, problems with shelter, medical care, capital punishment as well as incarceration.
His 1895 painting, “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” symbolized the situation that Africans were. He compared the conditions of the Africans as being in the lion’s den. They were at the mercy of their masters. For instance, there were no civil rights institutions in American by then. This made most people vulnerable especially women. As a result, women were at high risk of rape among other forms of sexual abuse. Those who tried fighting against sexual attacks ended up losing their life (Sanders, 530). Those who survived ended up with psychological and physical scars as a result of attacks they received from their white tormentors. By then, there was a dominant ideology that treated all women, white and black, as a chattel personal. This was used as the basis of sexual abuse on the part of men. In order to maintain racial purity, the southern culture strongly opposed any sexual relationship between whites and blacks. Therefore, the white slave children of those days were an indication that white men had taken advantage of black women resulting in a mixed race that was illegal. Just like Daniel in the lion’s den, they were waiting for a liberator whom they did not know when and where he would come. They thought they condition would last forever. Therefore, women and were the major victims of slavery.
The 1894 painting, “The Thankful poor” is another symbol of Africa-American subject. This painting clearly depicts the history and condition of the blacks in America. He refers to them as being “poor” (Tanner, 130). Indeed, they were poor. They were denied various opportunities that could relieve them from their condition. They could not earn any meaningful income. Exploitation was the order the order of the day. Their living conditions were also wanting yet their masters did nothing to help them solve their mysteries. They lived in the dark ages. Images such as women who sustained injuries as a result of rape, a man at the point of death due to starvation, emancipated children, lack of medication as well as a child dying of malnutrition were the witnessed every day. (Schneider et al. 160). The characterization of the author also depicts the forms of inhumanity that existed at the time. Indeed, the whites and the blacks lived in totally different worlds. Thus, there was a line of racial segregation that was used as a basis for exploitation in case of the blacks. During the slavery era, life was hard for African -American. This made Tanner to leave America to Paris where he lived in isolated areas. However, his effort to influence the abolition of slave at the end of 18th century marked the beginning to which the “whole world kin” started to perceive each other as human beings. It brought a new spirit among the blacks as well as among the white masters in America.
Mood Depicted Through the Various Paintings
Tanner depicts a sad mood in the analysis of various forms of social injustices inflicted to the blacks. Most of his paintings vividly depict characters in difficult conditions. For example, “Daniel in the lion’s Den”, “Resurrection of Lazarus” depicts a serious mood and suffering. However, there are images of hope that will finally signifying that happiness will eventually come after long suffering. Tanner argues that, “my effort has been to not only put the biblical incident in the original setting…but at the same time give human touch “which makes the whole world kin” and whichever remains the same” (Tunner, 45). This implies that his main focus was not to depict the condition and incidences in the bible as they happened. He wanted to show his concern for humanity in the whole world. His symbolic use of incidences in the bible communicates the massage to the affected in order to encourage a sense of change. In the painting, “The Banjo Lesson” he uses an image of a man holding a child. This symbolically shows hope. Moreover, “The Banjo Lesson” tries to point on the essence of love. The two characters in the paintings are close together (Tanner, 120). Therefore, they share one thing in common; love and affection. Their closeness is an indication that they are in a good relationship with each other where they regard each other with equity despite the prevailing conditions. The painting is worthy the value of love (Tanner, 250). Thus, through the painting, he tries to advocate among the whites and the blacks the needs to live in love with each other.
As analyzed above, Henry Ossawa Tanner is an African-American artist who highly influenced the abolition of slavery. He played a great role in advocating for the rights of the Africans among other people in United States. Although his paintings are somehow spiritual, his main idea behind the image is to communicate the idea of fairness as well as give hope to the victim of slavery. Having an African origin, Tanner was very passionate on the condition of the Africans. He stipulates that social injustice should not be used as a basis for discriminating others based on the race while using images related to the bible. His determination to end social injustice is also evident from the fact that he was from an abolitionist family that also suffered from the outcomes of slavery as efforts to end slavery were being watered down mostly by those who benefited from the slave labor.
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