II

Narratives of African American Art and Identity

James Lesesne Wells

Escape of the Spies from Canaan, 1932

Woodblock engraving

9" x 12"


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Escape of the Spies from Canaan

Touted as the "dean of the Negro printmakers" by James A. Porter in 1943, James Lesesne Wells was among the young artists of the period whose work addressed the black experience in America and helped to shape the developing African American aesthetic tradition. The son of a Baptist minister, Wells became known for his treatment of Biblical themes. Escape of the Spies from Canaan represents the Old Testament story from the Book of Numbers that recounts the plight of the Israelites as they approach Canaan, the land promised them by God. Wells's rendition illustrates the drama of the moment when the spies, sent by God to search out Canaan, flee the walled city that they find inhabited by man-eating giants. The racial designations, with the fleeing spies as black and the giant as white, evoke the striking parallel between this biblical story and the migration of southern blacks to the urban North in the early twentieth century. Regarding the potential opportunity that the north represented for southern blacks, it was often referred to as the Promised Land. The appropriation of biblical imagery to characterize the plight of African Americans has had a long tradition in African American culture.   A. L. C.

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