John E. Dowell, Jr Sam Gilliam Felrath Hines Gordon Parks Lorna Simpson Richard Hunt Romare Bearden John Woodrow Wilson Robert Colescott Adrian Piper Renée Stout Eldzier Cortor Richard Mayhew Carl Pope
African American Art Text Graphic

Eldzier Cortor

Dance Composition No. 31, 1978

Images of women and African diaspora cultures have been the central focus of Eldzier Cortor’s work for much of his long career. These interests coalesced in 1944 when he applied for a Rosenwald Foundation grant to work with the Gullah people in the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. In his application Cortor wrote,

As a Negro artist I have been particularly concerned with painting Negro racial types not only as such but in connection with particular problems in color, design and composition…I have felt an especial interest in…painting Negroes whose cultural traditions had been only slightly influenced by whites…I should like to…paint a series of pictures which would reflect the particular physical and racial characteristics of the Gullahs. 

Cortor received two fellowships in 1944 and 1945 to spend time in the Sea Islands. Although this print was produced more than three decades later, it reflects his memories of the region’s people, customs, and crafts, from the women’s simple head-wraps to their sweetgrass baskets and dances. The figures’ elongated sculptural features and decorative patterning reference African art, while at the same time appearing timeless and modern. More than a genre scene, Cortor creates an idealized symbol of an African American past based on an authentic African heritage.    

Born in 1916, Cortor’s life and career reflects the African American experience in the twentieth century. His family participated in the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural south to the industrial north near the turn of the century. Raised in Chicago, he trained at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Institute of Design; worked for the Federal Art Project; and co-founded Chicago’s South Side
Community Art Center. Like many young African Americans, he searched for positive Black imagery, which he found in working-class life in Chicago’s South Side, in the former slave cultures of the U.S. South and Caribbean, and, finally, in the symbolic form of the Black female figure. While much of his work displays a strength and hopefulness, other works, such as the Haitian slaughterhouse series (L’Abbatoire),suggest the suffering than can result from oppression and racism.

More information about the artist and these works can be found in the exhibition brochure by Matthew Backer and Jennifer Heusel, “Black Spirit”: Works on Paper by Eldzier Cortor (Indiana University Art Museum, 2006).

Romare Bearden, The Family

Eldzier Cortor
American, b. 1916
Dance Composition No. 31, 1978
Color intaglio on paper
Image: 20 3/8 x 15 5/16 in. (51.7 x 38.9 cm); sheet: 24 7/8 x 18 5/8 in. (63.2 x 47.3 cm)
Gift of Indiana University in honor of Vice President Charlie Nelms, IU Art Museum 2007.9
Art © Eldzier Cortor

Other Works:


Romare Bearden
Robert Colescott
John E. Dowell, Jr
Sam Gilliam
Felrath Hines
Richard Hunt
Gordon Parks
Adrian Piper
Lorna Simpson
John Woodrow Wilson
Renée Stout
Eldzier Cortor
Richard Mayhew
Carl Pope