In honor of Black History Month, we’re celebrating works currently on view by African American artists, including Jacob Lawrence’s Seaman's Belt, 1945.
In a style characterized by basic forms and expressive color, Jacob Lawrence highlighted momentous events and people in African American history, such as Haiti’s emancipation from European rule in 1804 and the life of American abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Lawrence also documented aspects of his own life, particularly his military service. After being drafted into the Coast Guard in 1943, he served as combat artist on the USS General W. P. Richardson.
Seaman’s Belt is not typical of the artist’s work; it provides neither a specific narrative nor does it contain any figures. However, these elements have a strong presence. It appears as if the sailor has just removed his belt and emptied his pockets. Keys, a crumpled pack of cigarettes, matches, and an identification badge point to contemporary civilization, while the pattern on the knife and beadwork on the belt allude to indigenous artistic traditions. This work may also be an unconventional self-portrait—the end of the war was nearing and Lawrence was to return soon to civilian life.