Augusta Savage is considered “one of the key leaders of the New Negro Movement” (Leininger, “Augusta Savage”). At a young age, Augusta Savage was a part of the Great Migration as she moved to New York City from Florida in 1921. She was classically trained at the Pratt Institute and the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, completing a four year degree in three years. By 1924, Savage was married three times, her third husband dying of pneumonia leaving her to support a family of nine by herself. Because of Savage’s advancing skills in art, she was invited to study art through a scholarship from the French government and two years later, awarded a scholarship to study in Rome. Her racial identity and financial circumstances were both factors in preventing her to continue advancing in her artwork, respectively. Later in her career, she “studied privately with various Italian-American sculptors” (Leininger, “Augusta Savage”). Savage has been recognized by the Harmon Foundation for her Head of a Negro and Evening sculptures. She has also been recognized as the “first African American elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors” (Leininger, “Augusta Savage”). In 1932, Augusta Savage opened the Savage School of Arts and Crafts and served as the Harlem Community Art Center’s director in “her efforts to raise the status of African American art” (Leininger, “Augusta Savage”). In addition to these accomplishments, she opened the Salon of Contemporary Negro Art. Augusta Savage retired in 1945 to pursue her newfound interest in writing fiction and “re-establish[ing] family ties” (Leininger, “Augusta Savage”).
This artwork was inspired by James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” – the African American National Anthem. The sculpture is sixteen feet high and located in front of the Contemporary Arts Building in New York. Augusta Savage created The Harp in response to the theme of the New York World Fair’s Board of Design, “The American Negro’s Contribution to Music, Especially to Song” (Patton 129). Included in the sculpture, is an outstretched arm reaching toward the back of the sculpture, figures appearing to be singing along the hand and arm “in graduated heights that symbolize the string of the harp” (americanart.si.edu), and a figure towards the front of the sculpture kneeling. The figure who is kneeling presents a plague, reading the anthem’s title “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Savage’s incorporation of the harp as the structural foundation of the composition symbolizes “a deep sense of common purpose and harmony” (Gaither, Afro-American Art). This symbolism is reflected through the idea that African Americans a part of the Great Migration shared a common purpose – hopes of living in harmony and leaving behind the racial injustices of the South. The man kneeling with a plaque of the title of the African American National Anthem represents “the struggle for social injustice and racial pride” (Gaither, Afro-American Art). The singers of different heights seem to be singing the song, an act to remind African Americans the significance of the song and what it represents –racial uplift, a later result and benefit of the Great Migration as it “characterized the sense of mission felt by striving Afro-Americans in [this] era” (Gaither, Afro-American Art).
Gamin was created in 1939. The inspiration for the artwork is still a debate amongst many scholars. Some scholars suggest that Augusta Savage was “inspired by a homeless boy on the street; others indicate it may have been based on the artist’s nephew, Ellis Ford” (Americanart.si.org). Regardless of the inspiration, Savage illustrates in the boy’s solemn expression that he “appears much wiser than his years, suggesting he has seen much hardship” (Americanart.si.org). Suggesting the child has seen much hardship, shows us the impact of the negative experiences African Americans had prior to the Great Migration. Through his wrinkled shirt and hat, Savage continues to illustrate the implications of hardship, such as poverty. The title of the sculpture, Gamin, is French for “street urchin” (Americanart.si.org). The outward appearance suggests the struggle African Americans faced before and during the Great Migration. Poverty was a push factor in encouraging African Americans to look up North for economic opportunities. The title suggests the kind of environment African Americans faced when starting a life up North –children spending most of their times in the streets. Even though the Great Migration had its benefits, African Americans were affected by the hardships they experienced in their journey up North and when they arrived as most had to start their lives from the beginning with nothing, but their faith in a brighter future.