The following essay is reprinted with permission of the Thomas J. Walsh Gallery in the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts, presenting in 2002 the exhibition Morgan Monceaux: A Century of African Americans in Dance. An illustrated gallery guide containing this essay may be obtained through the museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material, please contact the Thomas J. Walsh Gallery directly through either this phone number or web address:
Shall We Dance - A Century of African-Americans in Dance: The Art of Morgan Monceaux
Biography of Morgan Monceaux
He is a singer, a dancer and a painter. Born and raised in Alexandria, Louisiana, he studied music and theology at Bishop College. After serving with the Navy in Vietnam, he wandered across America. First in San Francisco and then Seattle, he opened galleries to show the work of local and regional Black artists. He soon came to believe that there is "no such thing as Black artists - only American artists."
Unemployed in New York City, he came across sign painters' paints left on the rooftop of the abandoned building he called home. Inspired by Grace Jones' Slave to the Rhythm, he created his first abstract paintings. Leaving the city he took a train to the end of Long Island where he worked as a janitor in an Easthampton nightclub, while in his free time, he taught himself to be a painter.
Incorporating historical research into his drawn, painted and collaged portraits, he created his first series George to George - the U.S.presidents, from Washington to Bush. His portraits of musicians became the book, JAZZ - My People, My Music, that was followed by MY HEROES, MY PEOPLE, a book about African-Americans and Native Americans in the American West.
His work has been exhibited at galleries and universities
and at the Carter, Ford, Nixon and Hayes Presidential Libraries as well
as the Library of Congress. (left: Jim Crow, 1993, 60 x 40
Morgan Monceaux: A Century of African Americans in Dance
by Claude L. Elliott
The art of Morgan Monceaux adds depth to the recent interest in the influences of African culture on American music and dance. In 1993 Monceaux constructed a series of fifty-one mixed-media works -- painting, collage, drawing, and assemblage. These 40 x 60 inch drawings are exhibited here for the first time. The series presents the participation of African-Americans in dance in America beginning in 1848. Monceaux's goal was to dispel the myth that only a handful of blacks danced professionally prior to the Civil Rights Era.
His interest in dance developed in the late 1980s as a result of meeting Janet Collins while living in Seattle, Washington. Monceaux pondered why he was unaware of this gifted dancer. In the 1940s Collins had danced with both Lester Horton and Katherine Dunham. She performed in Stormy Weather in 1943 and Out of This World in 1950. At a young age Collins trained in ballet but due to racism she could only perform ballet on the opera stage. In the early 1950s she was a prima ballerina Aida and in Samson and Delilah at the Metropolitan Opera. Later she choreographed dances based on the impulses of spirituals and New Orleans jazz. Collins's struggle for artistic freedom was not atypical and summed up the collective experience of African-American artists in the mid-20th century. This history had to be told not with words but paint, paper and found objects.
When Monceaux began his research for this project years later at the New York Public Library, he discovered the histories of many African-American dancers. The earliest images were captured from prints and posters, others from photographic archives, and several he sketched during live performances. For the drawing of William Henry Lane, Monceaux worked from a wood engraving. Lane was among the first African-Americans to dance in white minstrel shows. Known as Master Juba, Lane incorporated Irish clogging to create a jig, which predates tap dancing. The square dancers are not specific individuals but represent a popular dance style. Alvin Alley is a composite of early and late photographs, while Jimmy Slyde is based on sketches that Monceaux produced during a performance at a New York nightclub. Bill T. Jones was the first dancer that Monceaux created for this series.
Text written upside down, right to left and left to right activates each drawing. Important historical facts wrap around the dancer's body. This choreographed movement of letters creates rhythms and gestures providing visual insight into the personality and creative forces of each drawing.
Monceaux first creates pastel drawings, and then follows with the addition of paint, commercial markers, collage, fabric, plastic, jewelry, etc. You name it, it's there. Over the years friends have given Monceaux objects to incorporate in his work. A common practice is to scatter a variety of materials on tables and the floor, accessorizing dancers on an impulse. Monceaux presents Pearl Primus in full leap, with African head wrap, adorned with applied cowry shells, Popsicle sticks, brocade, glitter, and jewelry. The text scribbled in black magic markers generally comes last.
Illustrated here are several African-Americans - William Henry Lane, Pearl Primus and Lavinia Williams Yarbrough - who influenced American dance forms because of their unique approaches and powerful movement. The series Shall We Dance - A Century of African-Americans in Dance: The Art of Morgan Monceaux provides a comprehensive overview of the contributions of African-Americans and multicultural influences on the international dance scene. It should alter the way that we view the world.
About the Author
Claude L. Elliot is currently Program Officer with the Rhode Island Foundation
in Providence. For three years he was Assistant Curator of Prints, Drawings
and Photographs at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design where
he curated Pressing On: The Graphic Art of Wilmer Jennings.
Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Thomas J. Walsh Art Gallery at Fairfield University in Resource Library Magazine.
Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.
This page was originally published in 2002 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.
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