Amy Mooney

Art and Art History

As one of the foremost scholars on Archibald Motley, Amy Mooney helps organize a traveling exhibition and citywide initiative about the artist’s work.

The first Archibald Motley painting that Associate Professor Amy Mooney ever encountered was a self-portrait of the artist holding his palette. She was working as an undergrad intern at the Chicago History Museum during Motley’s first retrospective in 1991. Later, during graduate school at Rutgers University in New Jersey, she gravitated back to the celebrated African-American painter’s work.

“When it came time to pick a topic for my dissertation, I went back to Motley’s paintings,” Mooney says. “I found them so challenging in terms of our own expectations—especially in regards to women, gender and race.”

Today, Mooney is one of the art world’s leading Motley scholars. Though the two never met (Motley died in 1981), Mooney talks about the artist like a close friend. She’s written multiple books and articles on Motley, lectures on the artist in her classroom and around the country, and conducts research alongside prominent scholars.

So when the Chicago Cultural Center announced it was bringing the exhibition Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist to the city in spring 2015, of course Mooney had to be involved. She joined the curation team of the 42-painting exhibition, wrote for the catalogue and helped coordinate “Connect, Collaborate and Create: The Art of Archibald Motley,” a citywide initiative with special ties to Columbia College Chicago.

What draws people to Archibald Motley? Mooney points to his storytelling talent and the inherent narratives behind his paintings of African-American life in the ’30s and ’40s.

“What are these people saying to each other, where are they going? All these questions seem sort of frozen in the moment, and viewers can to insert their own narratives reflecting their perspective,” says Mooney. “It’s really kind of a generous moment.”

The Connect, Collaborate and Create initiative received funding from the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. This citywide program engaged artists, musicians and scholars, as well as CPS teachers and students. At Columbia, numerous courses incorporated Motley’s themes, and students visited the exhibition. From classes in dance to jazz music to First-Year Seminar, students used Motley’s work as a springboard for their own creative projects. In addition, institutions including the Black Cinema House, Museum of Contemporary Photography and Chicago Jazz Showcase hosted events and performances all over the city.

Chicago was a perfect stop for the traveling exhibition, which was organized by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke UniversityMotley was one of the first African-American graduates of the School of the Art Institute, and he often painted bustling scenes of Bronzeville and the Chicago Renaissance. He used his talent and status to highlight black communities often underrepresented (or totally absent) from gallery walls.

Mooney thinks Motley’s themes of identity, migration and community building will continue to resonate with today’s artists and students striving to understand themselves and their city. “For me, Motley is certainly a topic of passion because of the artwork itself, but also because of the social values and the ways he is civically engaged,” says Mooney. “That, ultimately, is what motivates me.”