The closing words of abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s 1870 book, “Army Life in a Black Regiment,” captured the imagination of artist Avel de Knight in 1969: “It was their demeanor under arms that shamed the nation into recognizing them as men.”
Amid a climate of social upheaval, an unpopular war in Vietnam and a struggle for civil rights, the young de Knight — born in New York to Caribbean-born parents — discovered Higginson’s moving account of his 17-month experience as the white commander of the Union’s first regiment of emancipated slaves during the Civil War.
Inspired by the bravery and strength of the black soldiers in the account, he began the process of producing 22 illustrations for a never-published version of the book using pen and ink with ink wash.
Those illustrations make up “Avel de Knight: Drawings for Army Life in a Black Regiment,” showing at the University of Richmond’s Harnett Museum. Viewers will find a subtle and almost romantic imagery that’s at once part of the Civil War era and strongly of the period 1969 through 1973, when de Knight worked on the drawings.
“In the ’70s, you had a lot of African-American artists doing much more political work that used new images of blacks,” says Richard Waller, curator of the exhibit and the executive director of University of Richmond museums.
There’s a 1970s feel to the poignant singular figures that inhabit de Knight’s illustrations. A soldier falls soundlessly on the battlefield. A soldier stands guard over a coffin in a graveyard. A slave crouches on the ground, contemplating his fate. All of them convey the beauty and strength of the African-American face and demeanor in a nontraditional manner that was developing out of the cultural shifts in the American landscape.
Often depicted in profile, the illustrations of men are the epitome of the racial pride that defined the black-power movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Here, black is beautiful.
De Knight, classically trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, blended his formal training with the contemporary art of the time by using abstract shapes, calligraphic lines and a strong sense of white space to create a unique pictorial style with his pen and brush. His figures convey drama and pathos as suitable for the 1970s as for the 1860s.
“The book was written in 1870 and he does these illustrations a hundred years later,” Waller says. “From serving in World War II in a segregated unit, he’d seen troops just like the ones depicted in the book. It is part of the reason it spoke to him; he’d seen some of the same situations in World War II. Still, society was afraid to treat blacks with equality.
As Waller adds, “It’s almost like it’s his story.”
“Avel de Knight: Drawings for Army Life in a Black Regiment,” shows at the University of Richmond’s Harnett Museum of Art and Print Study Center through April 4. There will be a curator’s talk Feb. 3 at 12:30 p.m. For information go to museums.richmond.edu or call 289-8276.