NEW YORK — Extolling the virtues of Harlem’s rich cultural history, Michelle Obama hosted a luncheon for the spouses of foreign dignitaries in the historic New York City neighborhood she described as “quintessentially American.”
The first lady spoke Sept. 24 to about 50 spouses of chiefs of state and heads of government attending the UN General Assembly. The group toured The Studio Museum in Harlem which was founded in 1968 by artists and civic and community leaders to provide space for modern and contemporary black art.
“There’s a reason why I wanted to bring you all to Harlem today, and that is because this community … is infused with a kind of energy and passion that is quintessentially American but that has also touched so many people around the world,” Obama said.
Obama discussed Harlem’s place in the early 20th century as the heart of black culture in the U.S., pointing to famous writers and musicians such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Louis Armstrong.
“Many of these men and women left the South just a couple of generations after the end of slavery and they were desperate to find a place where they could explore their talents and express their ideas freely,” she said. “This moment in history came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance.”
The first lady also encouraged the group to share ideas about how they are improving the lives of girls and women in their own countries.
“Everywhere I go in the world, I meet so many wonderful young girls – girls with so much promise, girls eager and desperate to learn, girls who just blossom when they get that one chance to go to school and to start scratching at the fulfillment of their potential,” Obama said. “And when they get that chance, when both boys and girls have an equal opportunity to learn, we all know that’s not just good for our children, it’s also good for their families and it’s good for their countries, as well.”
They dined in the main gallery surrounded by life-sized paintings of African-American women created by Houston-based artist Robert Pruitt. Made from crayon and charcoal on butcher paper, the paintings depict black women in his Texas neighborhood and incorporate elements of science fiction and hip-hop culture.
The lunch was provided by Red Rooster, a well-known soul food restaurant in Harlem, and included shrimp and rice and a salad with cornbread croutons.
The visiting first ladies from other nations each received a gift basket that includes a jar of honey butter produced from fresh honey from the White House beehive and lemon verbena grown in the White House herb garden.
They were serenaded by Broadway star Audra McDonald, whom the first lady described as a “dear friend,” and members of the chamber music class at LaGuardia Arts High School. There was also a performance by company members from the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
The group also toured the museum, which houses about 2,000 works from about 450 artists, the earliest work from 1804 and the most recent from 2013.
The museum was founded in a loft farther north in Harlem and moved to its current space, a former bank, in the 1980s. It currently has three emerging artists-in-residence of African or Latino descent occupying its studios.