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

by Nnamdi Elleh

 



 

John Biggers's Yoruba Shrine (1957) also presents a sacred space -- the shrine as he accurately observed it during his travels in western Nigeria. In the painting, the shrine common in many Yoruba households is tucked into a notch on the wall of a cool adobe structure, and it houses two carved sculptures. As in Delaney's Untitled (Totem of Light), the male and female sculptures and their dog are placed on a raised platform in order to accentuate the sense of the sacred. Corn Rows (c.1957) is another Biggers's drawing that evokes the theme of ritual. The relationship between the woman in the foreground and the small disc-shaped wooden comb on her head -- called an akua ba --- conveys a sense of both the setting and the kind of ritual taking place.[47] In the Akan oral tradition it is believed that a similar object was first made for a woman, known as Akua, who was having difficulties conceiving. A priest told her to carry the figure around like a baby in order to become pregnant. According to the myth, Akua obeyed the priest and eventually became pregnant. Seeing that Akua's childlessness was over, other women who wanted children but were having difficulties adopted similar figures and carried them around as fertility aides.

In Corn Rows, Biggers retells the Akua story by showing us the serious, somber woman who appears to be in distress. Like the women in the story of Akua, the woman in the foreground of the picture carries one of the rounded wooden combs in her plaited hair in order to ameliorate fertility problems. In addition, Biggers metaphorically describes the setting in which the ritual of pregnancy takes place as Corn Rows, a term that evokes familiar scenes to his American audience. Many Americans would understand the relationship between the earth, the corn, and the farms scattered throughout the rural heartlands of the United States. The earth replenishes the corn and the corn nourishes human beings and animals, and in the end, all living things return to the earth. This symbiotic relationship between the earth, corn, human beings, and animals is at the core of the painting's narrative. These relationships are encapsulated in the work as mutual regenerations. Biggers represents human regeneration in the form of a younger woman who turns her back on the viewer; she represents a regeneration of the older woman in the image who faces the viewer. According to the Akan myth that Biggers translates for his American audience, it is the magical powers of the older woman's comb that makes this miraculous regeneration possible.

Biggers continues the theme of ritual and sacrifice in Luna Cycle (1994). In this setting, he composes the shrine in a manner that juxtaposes both African and African American representational traditions. The portico of the shrine recalls those of the row houses in his earlier painting, Shotguns (1987), in which he presents another ritual scene involving several women holding miniature houses. The strong symmetry that Biggers's maintains in Luna Cycle provides a sense of balance, signifying harmony.[48] The woman in the foreground has one foot on a turtle -- an animal that signifies age, wisdom and cunning in African mythology. Her other foot barely touches the ground in front of the shrine. Near her, two younger women face the direction of the offerings. In the background, on either side of the entrance, two more women move toward two large clay pots with boiling contents, ready to dip the roosters they hold into the pots. In this ritual setting, the gifts are cooked as they are offered to the spirits. To the left background, the rooster offered is a white one, a clue that Biggers truly understands the role of ritual in West Africa. White roosters, white bulls, white goats, and sometimes the white distilled spirit and kola nuts are among the ingredients of sacrifice to gods, beings and deities in the spirit world. Biggers probably observed these rituals during his travels in West Africa. The ritual settings in these paintings by Delaney and Biggers become visual performances through their spiritual activism, and they are intended to function along side other forms of performance, all interdependent on each other, in order to properly empower the audience. When visual culture merges with the performative, it can become an instrument of social activism; reenactments of spiritual power in the form of recitations, repetitions, representations, and incantations "rely on the primary means of the various instruments of communication; [they intend] to give life to a 'great dynamic-rhythmic formal event, which gathers together, in a form reduced to the elementary, the most extensive heap of means, ricocheting off one another.'"[49]

It is therefore not surprising that performance art reached its peak in African American communities during the 1960s, when the civil rights movement was in full swing and several radical Pan African American movements also emerged.[50] It was in the political arena that black leaders such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesse Jackson as well as entire organizations including the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam began to perform vocally in ways that shattered the cultural silence imposed upon the public speech of African Americans by those in power.[51] Like their artist counterparts who performed on stage and created images of activism, these leaders adopted the strategy of re-enactment. The civil rights leaders spoke about current issues and everyday experiences in ways that moved and empowered the members of their audience to demand political, social, cultural, and economic equality. ''There speeches were powerful and moving, not solely because of the way they put words together on the page extemporaneously; it was the way that they 'performed' those words that deeply affected the listener."[52 Hence, early performance acts in the African American community -- paintings, sculptures, film, drama, poetry, public speaking and protests -- were interventionist acts which addressed the realities of day-to-day living for black people in the United States.

Performance has been a means of social resistance throughout African American history partially because it does not require the same resources as do other forms of art. Although performance as a source of income and performance as an artistic ritual are closely related, the two have important differences.[53] Often, performance as a profession dilutes its political potency in order to appease its audience (for example, Hollywood cinema or Broadway musicals), but performance as an art ritual carries its message in formal strategies that resist political and ideological appropriation.[54] Artistic formats which do not abbreviate a work's political content help to ensure its resistance to the politics and ideology of the dominant culture that motivated its production. Thus, the performance projects of African American artists continue to contest the public sphere by questioning certain critical norms, such as the meaning of otherness and "difference," as well as issues of sex and race in a heterogeneous society like the United States.[55]

 

Celebrating Modern African and African American Life

There is one other critical source of inspiration for the African American modernist project: the work of the avant-garde in Europe and the Caribbean. Theresa Leininger-Miller's recent book, New Negro Artists in Paris: African American Painters and Sculptors in the City of Light, 1922-1934, provides one of the most extensive studies on African American artists working in Paris during the first three decades of the twentieth century. [56] But just as important is the work of major African American Artists who settled in Paris after World War II. Both groups should be considered from the perspective of an analysis of twentieth-century cultural influences, a perspective that recognizes the contribution of avant-garde and Pan-African movements in the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, and North America. [57] Beauford Delaney, Aaron Douglas, Hale Woodruff, and Romare Bearden were among those who studied abroad and were influenced by the Parisian avant-garde.[58] At the same time, it is important to bear in mind the influence that artistic and political movements in French colonies had on Parisian intellectuals. The poetry and insights of key anti-colonial figures such as Aimé Césaire, Léoplod Sédar Senghor, and Frantz Fanon were written in French and translated into English, and they circulated globally both before and after World War II. Doubtlessly, American artists in Paris would have come across their work. This is one of the reasons for the rich cross-fertilization of ideas among different movements of the avant-garde, and an important reason why art history's traditional categorization of the avant-garde is far too constraining for the context of this exhibition.

As a fragmented visual language and a medium for conveying information, the representational strategies of the avant-garde are flexible; they allow people with different topical concerns to experiment from within the same visual language and arrive at radically different solutions. By focusing on the plurality of approaches within the avant-garde, the global circuit of influence and transformation becomes clear. For example, Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2 (1912) might have influenced the South African-born Gerard Sekoto's condemnation of South Africa's system of forced labor in his rhythmic piece, Song of the Pick (1946-47). Likewise, Duchamp's work seems to have influenced Norman Lewis's Processional (1964), a picture that evolved out of his experiences during the civil rights marches of the 1960s. Two years later, traces of Duchamp also appear in Nigerian-born Erhabor Emokpae's International Cooperation (1966), a sculpture done for the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs on Victoria Island, Lagos. In each work, the artists took advantage of the flexibility of the avant-garde's visual vocabulary in order to express a specific artistic and political concern.

Thus, like the pioneers of the avant-garde, African American artists ritualistically reenacted the contribution of African sculpture to twentieth-century art. But unlike artists for whom Africa was merely a means to a Eurocentric end, by placing African objects in their paintings and appearing in photographs among such objects, African and African American modern artists called attention to the influence of Africa on European modernism. In so doing, black Americans inserted themselves into a rich historical tradition, fusing that tradition with recent visual strategies to create something radically new -- an African identity transformed, in short, an African American artistic voice. Thus, the work of African American modernists educated their audience on two pivotal levels: they encouraged them to relate to their own African heritage, and they intervened into the history of art by revealing how artists like Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque came in contact with African art and used its visual languages to invent their cubist styles during the turn of the twentieth century.[59] Both aspects involve a pride in Africa's contribution to modern and contemporary art. However, this pride was sometimes tinged with exoticism.

Delaney's Man and African Sculpture (c.1965) presents the eponymous sculpture as a fetish object in the watchful eyes of a man proud of his possession. In the painting, both the man and the sculpture are exoticized through Delaney's visual choices.[60] The man's costume and the meticulous details with which Delaney painted the sculpture -- the slashes, bulges, shadows, and exaggerated elements of the body -- combine to convey the man and his sculpture as alien to modern American culture. Their position as Africanized "others" transforms them into an exotic spectacle, rendering them adorable and magical to the American viewer. This use of the exotic reoccurs in Bob Thompson's Nude and Sculpture (1961), in which a female nude reclines in an erotic posture with an animated sculpture in the shadows. The relationship in the painting established by Thompson is a relationship between two fetishes: between the fetishized, eroticized, exoticized female nude and the fetish object of the sculpture. Thompson's Europa (1958), a re-imagining of the recurring trope of rape in European painting is also indebted to the spirit of the avant-garde. Here, Thompson weaves together bestial desire, European mythology, and nature, all beautifully intertwined in motion. But the red eyes of the wolf and Europa's overall features cannot be divorced from the influences of African carving traditions.[61]

We must call attention to a major oversight by historians of the 1950s avant-garde in order to understand the full significance of Charles Alston's Ceremonial #3 (c.1950) and Flowers of Evil (1952), which quote cubism's visual language of representation. The avant-garde, particularly, the cubists and the surrealists, did not just look to the "underdeveloped" world of Africa in order to appropriate visual icons for the purposes of meeting their artistic concerns; their relationship to Africa was dialectic. During the turn of the twentieth century, while the European modernists were busy appropriating traditional modes of representation from Africa, African and African American modernist artists were also busy, using the avant-garde mode of representation in order to express their artistic and political concerns. This dialectic is analogous to the ways in which the colonized used the language of their oppressors as a lingua franca in order to subvert the power structure of colonialism and galvanize support for independence. For example, in Francophonic Africa (Belgian and French colonies), artists and nationalists used the common language of French to unite people of different linguistic backgrounds in protest against the evils of colonialism. [62] This unintended linguistic cultural exchange was mirrored in the visual and performing arts, journalism, literature, and in politics, among the colonized elite. This is not the version of history that we receive from John Golding, Robert Rosenblum, and Edward Fry who all present a history in which the avant-garde took from the "primitive cultures" and gave nothing in return.[63]

Thus, when Charles Alston quoted Charles Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil, he was only expressing the dialectical exchange that took place among the members of the avant-garde. [64] In this case, Flowers of Evil can be seen as an extension of his earlier painting, Ceremonial #3, for which there are numerous African sources. Among them, the vertically and horizontally elongated faces, eyes, noses, and small mouths could have come from the rhythm ponder figures made by the Senufo ethnic groups of Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, and Mali. The defensive postures of the arms of the figures in Ceremonial #3 could have derived from postures that are common among bocios, such as the one made for king Glele in the nineteenth century.[65] Alston's use of light and shadow softens the surface of this canvas, causing it to appear as an ensemble of carved sculptures in motion. The syncretic application of elements from multiple sources gives Ceremonial #3 its dynamic liveliness. Once again we witness a ceremonial ritual, visible in the shrine. As I have been arguing throughout this essay, the theme of ritual, as we saw in the work of Delaney and Biggers, is an essential one for African American modernists, and it is also a theme that goes back to the early days of the European avant-garde.

African and African American avant-garde artists as well as their European counterparts share the common interest of reclaiming the public sphere through artistic protest. For that fundamental reason, appropriating aspects of the "other," alterity, was a central ritual tool for reclaiming the public space of social discourse, because it provided the avant-garde with important political and cultural alliances otherwise lacking in their society. But most importantly, it shocked and threatened the values of the established ruling elite and middle class. For the surrealist movement, commitment to these concerns were manifest in multiple public demonstrations and rituals that were intended to shock the political establishment and the people whom they considered as bourgeois. This major aspect of avant-garde discourse has been grossly overlooked. One can see how, when the surrealists rebelled against the establishment in France -- the political, capitalist, and colonialist elite -- they paved the way for trust between themselves, minority artists, and anti-colonial leaders, because they all shared a common enemy. It is therefore not surprising that the connection between the French surrealists who established political allegiance with minority groups from Africa, the United States, and the Caribbean, can be traced to the social tensions caused by the industrial bourgeois society. Novelty, strangeness, and otherness became weapons of social war; tools of assault upon the ruling class and the perceived establishment. This level of exchange among multiple avant-garde groups (who often had varying artistic and political interests) constitutes the bloodline that nourishes avant-garde art. In the words of Thomas Crow:

What are we to make of the continuing involvement between modernist art and the materials of low or mass culture? From its beginnings, the artistic avant-garde has discovered, renewed, or re-invented itself by identifying with marginal, 'non-artistic' forms of expressivity and display ­ forms improvised by other social groups of otherwise devalued or ephemeral commodities.[66]

We cannot overlook how Crow also sets a polarity between "high" versus "low" culture, which could include a dichotomy between the "civilized" and the "uncivilized." Regardless, the Parisian avant-garde and African and African American artists had in common the mistrust of bourgeois ideology, which allowed the avant-garde to visualize itself as a "minority movement," functioning alongside the bourgeois-dominated modern art movement. Here, we are reminded that the term avant-garde is inclusive and often does not place social or international boundaries on its sources. In fact, it would be more correct to speak of avant-gardes, since the multiple avant-garde movements of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have incorporated low culture, group survival mechanisms, and provocative styles. [67] Thus, it is not surprising that African American modernist artists adopted the visual languages of the European avant-garde, because they themselves are minorities. At the same time, they faced radically different social and artistic problems from those that afflicted members of the European avant-garde in the wake of the shocking and modern destructiveness of the Great War. The studies of avant-garde language that Alston began in Ceremonial #3, matures into abstract analytical figures wherein the shades and shadows cast by the figures are still present.

One can make a parallel here between Alston's analytical study of the surface of the canvas in the Flowers of Evil and the manner in which Picasso and Braque embarked upon similar studies between 1909 and 1911. The most important point in this analogy is that in their search for difference, avant-garde artists practiced a visual language contrary to the language of the dominant culture. Similarly, using visual representation to contest the public space can be observed in how Alston extends the ideas in Ceremonial #3 to Flowers of Evil. In this context, the beauty of Flowers of Evil is dependent upon the intensity of imagination that the image can arouse in the viewer's mind. In his study of how the abstract paintings of Picasso and Braque evolved, Robert Rosenblum writes:

If cubism wished to make explicit the means by which nature becomes art, then the growing complication of cubist syntax in 1911 must have threatened the balance between dependence upon nature and autonomy of art. For example, in Braque's circular Soda of 1911 the teeming fragments of still-life objects (which appear to include a wineglass, a pipe, a sheet of music, and the label SODA) have become so intricate that not only the composition itself but its references to the external world are dangerously obscured. [68]

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