The pictures of black women that Miguel Covarrubias drew during the Harlem Renaissance are among the best I have seen. He did not draw black women as if they were white women with a few differences, like many did in the late 1900s, nor did he draw them as if they were not truly human, as many did in the 1800s. He drew them as the women they were. To him black was beautiful.
Langston Hughes compared his pictures to the blues, others saw him as the Gauguin of Harlem. Some who knew the Harlem Renaissance first-hand say his pictures caught its spirit – and in a way that will be clear even a thousand years from now.
But some thought his pictures were terrible. W.E.B. Du Bois said he would be happier if Covarrubias were never alive. One art critic found his pictures “geometrical”.
Some of his pictures of black women seem pretty bad: huge lips and so on. Maybe at one time he did look down on them. But then again he was a caricaturist who even drew his own wife with a huge eye.
Yet his other pictures are so good that only a man who saw the wonder and beauty of black women could have drawn them.
Instead of drawing monkey women or black Barbies, he drew black women with all their natural beauty and shapes – of their eyes, their lips, their face, their bodies, all of it. And some he even drew in a way where you could see their inner beauty too.
Covarrubias drew pictures for books by Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, W.C. Handy, Alain Locke and others of the Harlem Renaissance. He also drew the first pictures of blacks to appear in Vanity Fair magazine. Some of these pictures later appeared in his own book, “Negro Drawings” (1927).
Covarrubias grew up in the bohemian part of Mexico City among writers, painters and thinkers. So when he came to New York in the 1920s and a friend took him to Harlem, he fell in love. The best and brightest of Black America were there in Harlem. And the music and the nightlife was great. Covarrubias was not black but neither did he grow up with American ideas of race and colour.
Both Mexico and America thought of themselves as white countries, but Covarrubias knew better: they were both mixed. In Mexico it was white mixed with the brown of ancient Mexico of the Aztecs and Olmecs and so on. In America it was white mixed with the black of Africa that came over on slave ships.
The true wellsprings of art in both countries came not from the whites but from the coloureds. The history of American music since his time has proved him right.
Covarrubias was in Harlem in the 1920s but later he would go to Bali, Africa and south Mexico to study the art in those places and apply what he learned to his own art.