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What do you notice first in “African Nude”? We see a woman, wearing only a large necklace, reclining on an overstuffed settee. While her position is similar to the pose found in classic images, the mood is different. The nude in this work, with eyes downcast, appears unhappily submissive and ill at ease amidst the oversize lush plants and gala colors of the background.

Artist James Lesesne Wells had a long career in printmaking. First participating in the Federal Arts Project, which encouraged art making during the Great Depression, he then taught at Howard University in DC for 4 decades. Wells was active in the civil rights movement and often depicted the struggles of African Americans in his work. “African Nude” reflects Wells’s interest in traditional African aesthetics and a commitment to representing African American history. #blackhistorymonth

James Lesesne Wells, “African Nude,” 1980, color linocut on Japan paper, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Jacob Kainen


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