A Continent without Borders: Africa's Influence on African American Artists

by Nnamdi Elleh



The Watershed Years: Discovering African Art in the United States

Despite the large number of artists who participated in its formation, African American modernism did not develop in chronological stages as a single cohesive cultural movement. Instead, its history suggests a period of transition from ideas learned in debates about Africa and African American sociopolitical experiences, to another period, when the leading African American modernist artists felt comfortable enough to start inscribing and translating what they had learned about their African heritage into their works.

Debates among black activists and intellectuals helped to lay the early foundations for the African American modernist project. The publication of journals like Opportunity by the Urban League (founded in 1910), and The Crisis by the NAACP (founded in 1909), with W.E.B. DuBois as the editor, should be considered among the major factors that helped to introduce certain ideas of Africa into the United States.[23] These journals espoused several conflicting ideological solutions for the problems of the "black man" in America. As Catherine Bernard suggests, the journals focused on issues of race and civil rights and on the alienation of the African American elite from African American culture because of their lack of knowledge of African culture. [24] The contributions of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) headed by the Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey should also be kept in mind. While Garvey was championing a "Back to Africa" campaign, his contemporary W.E.B. DuBois advocated intellectual and cultural consciousness for African Americans through art. In his essay entitled, "Criteria of Negro Art," DuBois expressed his belief in the power of art to serve as a propaganda for his race. He argued: "thus, it is a bounded duty of black America to begin this great work of the creation of beauty, of the preservation of beauty, of the realization of beauty, and we must use in this work all the methods that men have used before."[25] DuBois also believed that art could bridge cultural gaps between black and white Americans if black artists were given the opportunity to explore their talents, because, he reasoned, art can inculcate a sense of cultural heritage and identity to an oppressed group. For DuBois, African culture and African American heritage were rich enough to help blacks in the United States regain their political and cultural consciousness.[26] On the other hand, the Garveyists believed that the "black man" had no chance in the United States of America; they argued that black Americans should either move "back" to Africa or they should be given separate sovereign land on U.S. soil, where they could establish a nation and shape their own destiny. [27] Garvey was expressing a trajectory of thought that can be traced to the mid-nineteenth century, when people like Alexander Crummell wrote about African identity and the incalculable disruptions caused by slavery to the African continent and African Americans. [28] The nineteenth century debates about the "Back to Africa" movement, Kwame Anthony Appiah observes, had serious implications for African Americans and for blacks all over the world:

Among the outcomes, intellectuals came to think of themselves, for the first time, as members of Negro race -- and as Africans -- they drew not only on this general Western framework, but also on the ideas of African American intellectuals -- Alexander Crummell, E.W. Blyden, W.E.B. DuBois -- who had been taught to understand themselves as Negroes in the context of the New World systems of racial domination, the framework left by slavery.[29]

These debates coincided with significant developments in the field of archaeology, notably in the work of German archeologist Leo Frobeneous, who had traveled throughout most of Africa and began to publish his findings in the late nineteenth century. [30] The work of Frobeneous, which continued to be published into the twentieth century, highlighted the fact of African civilization, a simple fact that radically contradicted the ideologically dominant idea of white/European cultural superiority. In looking at pre- and post-Egyptian civilization, Frobeneous and some of his contemporaries rethought the relationship of ancient Egypt to black Africa. This assertion, that civilization in black Africa pre-dated, co-existed with and ultimately outlasted ancient Egyptian culture finally started to crack the Eurocentric version of history which imagined ancient Egyptian civilization as a kind of African anomaly -- a rare moment of culture on a continent otherwise devoid of it, invented by people who were closer to Europeans geographically and epidermally and were therefore able to create a rich, if still "decadent" society. Such developments enriched the intellectual environment and strengthened political and social movements for racial equality by bringing these new discoveries in Africa's art, archeology, and history to the attention of those involved in these debates.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, African American artists and intellectuals finally had access to African art, not only through the research of Frobeneous, but also in other significant ways. Missionaries serving in Africa carried objects back to the United States; some of those objects were collected by historically black colleges including Hampton University, Howard University, Fisk University, Atlanta University, and Texas Southern University. [31] These objects became part of the curriculum in different ways, "depend[ing] upon the degree of cultural awareness of the administration, faculty, and staff."[32] It was William H. Sheppard who contributed many objects in the collection at Hampton between 1890 and 1910, following his missionary service in the Kasai Valley in the Congo.[33] According to Alvia Wardlaw, Hampton University used the African objects in its collection as teaching tools, and by 1880, the university had produced so many graduates that nearly ten thousand black children in the southern United States were being taught by Hampton alumni. By the mid-twentieth century, that collection had begun to shape the vision and ideas of African American art students, such as John Biggers, whose professor, Viktor Lowenfeld, encouraged him and his classmates to explore African art and learn how to incorporate it in their own work.

The contributions of Alain Locke, who began to teach at Howard University in 1912, are also essential to tracing this history of influence. According to Wardlaw, "it was Locke who, with his own funds, began buying works of African art for Howard's permanent collection,"[34] and as Lowenfeld would write years later, Locke influenced several African American artists, including Lois Mailou Jones who recalled that Locke once admonished her for not working with precedents from her African heritage.[35] Locke also traveled extensively in Europe, where he met several African students with whom he discussed the cultural and political concerns of people with African ancestry. In 1924, Locke worked with the French Oriental Archeological Society of Cairo, a connection that gave him the opportunity to travel through most of Egypt and the Republic of Sudan and to witness the reopening of the tomb of Tutankhamen. These experiences enabled him to conceive and initiate an African Studies Program at Howard University and to begin to organize exhibitions on African art, as he did at the Harlem Museum of African Art in 1928. Such early efforts at introducing African art to the American public certainly paved the way for the 1935 exhibition, African Negro Art, organized by New York's Museum of Modern Art.[36]

The contributions of the historically black colleges directly affected the cultural and intellectual movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. For example, Alain Locke became one of the key founders of the movement with his 1925 essay, "The New Negro," which became an essential torch lighting the path of the Harlem Renaissance. In the essay, Locke imagines the "New Negro" coming to replace the image of the "Old Negro," a stereotype perpetuated by myth and racism.[37] In a subsequent article, "The Negro Takes His Place in American Art," Locke expressed optimism about the maturing talents of black artists who were beginning to have an impact on the American art scene. [38] Such optimism was echoed in Albert C. Barnes's essay, "Negro Art and America," in which Barnes suggested that "the renaissance of Negro art is one of the events of our age which no seeker of beauty can afford to overlook."[39] Both essays on art remind us to assess the work of the "Harlem Renaissance Artists" within the context of institutionalized racism in the 1920s.

Therefore, when analyzing the works of the Harlem Renaissance artists, one needs to keep in mind that the theme of cultural marginalization inspired an internal reflective search for self identity among African American intellectuals and artists. The effects of such debates reverberated beyond the sphere of paintings and sculpture; they also shaped the literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Poets and prose authors such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston wrote with the intention to validate culturally African American vernacular dialect.[40] Some of the poems of the Harlem Renaissance were written as what we now call "spoken word" performances, in order to vocalize differences between "standard" English and vernacular African American English. This in turn has influenced contemporary African American performance art, in which recitation plays a significant role, enhancing the effects of a given performance and allowing the performers to draw from personal experiences and share such experience with the audience by getting them involved in the ongoing event. Bell Hooks writes that:

The poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, like much of the fiction of that period, sought to reclaim vernacular speech as the voice of resistance. It did that through an insistence on the production of work that could be performed. The poetry of Langston Hughes epitomizes this emphasis on recitation. In poems like The Dream Deferred, where the writer shifts back and forth between standard English, dialect and patois, one cannot hear the distinct voices in his work unless these works are read aloud -- performed.
When tracing their artistic development, African American women writers such as Maya Angelou often call attention to those formative years in school, where they learned to recite. Victimized by both racism and sexism, pushed into silence, Angelou recovered her voice -- and with it her sanity, her capacity to face reality -- by learning to perform. In the recent biography of James Earle Jones, the actor's development is charted as the movement from being someone who was afraid to speak (in part because he stuttered) to that moment when he is compelled by a teacher to learn a poem that he must perform in front of the class.[41]

We cannot overlook the strong parallels between recitations by African American poets and repetitions of ancient African visual elements in the paintings of African American modernists; both aim to reinforce the desired effects on the audience through the coordination of "light, space, surface, form, movement, sound, man -- with all the possibilities of variation and combination of these elements in turn -- an artistic configuration: an ORGANISM."[42] We also have music, sculpture, painting, film -- all united by the need to share different versions of African American experiences with the audience in a manner parallel to what Moholy-Nagy describes as "The Theatre of Totality.[43] This kind of coordination that encourages mass participation by everybody can be likened to ritual ceremonies.[44] In several African traditions, recitation and repetition are forms of incantation -- communication with the spirits of the ancestors -- and often, they take place in a shrine where offerings are made to ancestors and deities.[45] This idea is central to Beauford Delaney's painting, Untitled (1945). There is no disguise of the ritual setting in this painting. The bowl of fruit is placed before the ancestral figure, which stands before a flaming background where palm trees and the silhouette of houses remain visible. The bird approaching the bowl could be symbolic of a received offering. Delaney's Untitled (Totem of Light) (c. 1968) also presents a ritual setting; this time, the staff of power and the bright light in the blue background suggest a representation of Shango. This staff is placed on a pedestal and the vase next to the pedestal contains the offering. It is not enough to know the work of Delaney only by his numerous abstractions and European-inspired subjects, there are also moments when he deliberately prepared images that reflect his spiritual feelings towards Africa.[46]

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