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

by Nnamdi Elleh

 



 

Rosenblum's observation is also useful for an understanding of Hale Woodruff's Black and White (c.1958), an abstract meditation on race in America that obscures any explicit reference to its contemporary social and political context. In this work, the white masts at the top of the canvas and the black images that break the picture plane in half are pierced by dim lights. This blend of shadow and darkness triggers the viewer's imagination and encourages him or her to contemplate certain social and racial divisions and injustices in the United States. By contrast, in Melvin Edward's, Because of the Struggle (1994), we recognize very clearly the metaphorical significance of chains to African American history; the piece evokes the history of slavery and segregation and also highlights the economic marginalization of African Americans in contemporary society. Thus, it is a reminder that despite the progress made in the previous 150 years, still more work is required to improve African American economic conditions. Coincidentally, Because of the Struggle was created in the same year that Nelson Mandela was elected the President of South Africa following his 1990 release from prison.

Charles White's J'accuse! No. 7 (1966), aims to bridge the gap between African prehistoric art, the modern African woman and her social responsibilities, and the adventures of the European avant-garde -- through an image that suggests economic and social protest. Let us trace this line of thought step-by-step while keeping in mind that the "form" of this picture "is inseparable from its content."[69] First, like Woodruff, White was familiar with ancient rock paintings from the caves of South Africa, and he is most likely alluding to images of men carrying food and other items in the prehistoric paintings at Porters Boulder. White juxtaposes this unfamiliar image with the more immediately recognizable image of an African mask. By placing a mask over the face of a figure traditionally represented as male in cave paintings, White provokes questions from the viewer about the identity of the figure and about the activity in which the figure is engaged. We are drawn to this figure because he/she is mysterious and the mystery gives it power. Therefore, we are naturally curious to know more about him/her, and whatever we learn about him/her will help us to locate where he/she belongs in society. But, this is an unveiled masquerade and as such, it reveals a spirit, an unknown supernatural being, which suggests that the figure does not belong to this world. At the same time, the image still gives us clues through the apparel, the figure itself, and the mask. The figure makes a gesture of self-unveiling; he or she is on the verge of revealing his or her identity. Through his/her clothing, the figure reveals herself as the market woman who carries her goods to and from the market. Thus, in the drawing, Charles White literarily unveils the social strata to which this woman belongs. Recognizing the figure as a market woman provokes a discourse that can be explained along lines similar to certain observations made by T.J. Clark in his book, The Painting of Modern Life because the identity of the woman calls forth issues regarding social and economic alignments in the society. According to Clark:

It sounds right -- it corresponds to the normal usage -- to say that any social order consists primarily of classifications. What else do we usually mean by the word "society" but a set of means for solidarity, distance, belonging, and exclusion? These things are needed pre-eminently to enable the production of material life -- to fix an order in which men and women can make their living and have some confidence that they will continue to do so. Orders of this sort appear to be established most potently by representations or systems of signs, and it does not seem to me to trivialize the concept of "social formation" -- or necessarily to give it an idealist as opposed to a materialist gloss -- to describe it as a hierarchy of representations.[70]

If we use the ideas proposed by Clark to study J'accuse! No. 7, we will discover that White is commenting on the structure of the existing social formations that he saw. In this case, J'accuse! No. 7 is a commentary on an existing social representation -- the market place which determines what kinds of access and opportunities we have for fulfilling our aims. As Clark writes, "Economic life -- the 'economy,' the economic realm, sphere, level, instance, or what-have-you -- is in itself a realm of representations. How else are we to characterize money, for instance, or the commodity form, or the wage contract?"[71] Thus when we look at this mysterious woman, White is unveiling a realm of life in which people carry baskets to the market, they carry water, firewood, and different supplies on their heads. It is the inevitable process they must undergo before they can achieve their social, material, political, and spiritual needs and aspirations. The irony is that while White celebrates African culture within the painting, the figure herself stares at the viewer with an accusatory eye, thus implicating the viewer in economic malpractice. The question is, what is it about the marketplace that provokes this accusatory look from this African or African American woman? The title of the painting, J'accuse! No. 7, tells us that the market place is guilty. This is an example of a context in which ancient and contemporary African icons are quoted, and the resulting image often directly and indirectly has no choice but to perform an activist role in a setting that is collectively and individually negotiated. By borrowing his title directly from Emile Zola's J'accuse!, White accuses the enforcers of the rules of the market (and thus the world's social order), of economic injustice against African peoples.[72]

The constraints of contemporary capitalism (the market) is also among the most important contexts for understanding the beauty of Jacob Lawrence's Meat Market, a picture he prepared during his visit to Nigeria in 1964. The picture recalls the independence movements that swept the African continent during the 1960s, and it signifies the starting point when African people all over the world began to take control of and define their cultural, economic, and political destinies.[73] As an instructional documentary in visual form, its mode of communication is the vibrant and beautiful colors of African women's attire. Each woman carrying goods on her head, sometimes with a child tied to her back, is well animated. Dressed in different kinds of kaftan, wrapper, kente cloths, and ashoke -- woven fabrics that are sown into buba blouses -- the women carry symbolic meaning along with the baskets of goods on their heads. First, the weighty loads underscore the essential roles that women play in African societies -- from child rearing to economic contribution. But a closer look at these instructional images also challenge us to wonder how the African woman has gained her economic benefits despite the contributions she makes to African society. Second, the beauty that radiates from these women and the few men within the market setting gives hope and informs us that African cultures are in transition from the traditional to the modern, constantly propelled by the economic pressures and political competitions among various interest groups.[74]

The urgent need to accurately convey these necessary instructional economic commentaries about the life of African women to his fellow Americans inspired John Biggers to ask: "How can I produce a convincing image of mamme -- the fountain of all life, the mother of all men?"[75] Biggers's concerns are well-founded. On one hand, he faced the challenge of preparing images that fully represent the beauty of African life, on the other hand, he also had the challenge of fully interpreting the political and social context of that life for African Americans. He expressed this dilemma in 1962: "Settling down to interpreting African life was the most difficult task I had encountered during my eighteen years of painting and drawing. The impact of Africa almost paralyzed my creative efforts; the drama and the poetic beauty were devastating. Until I was able to reorient myself I was literally broken; I felt unequal to the task."[76]

The fact that Biggers also painted market scenes allows us to understand how his visual records of and commentaries on African life intersect with those of Jacob Lawrence. The economic and political significance of these images have provided numerous dialogues between the works of leading African American artists and their African counterparts. For example, on April 25,1994, the need to fully grasp the importance of the market woman was underscored when the Nigerian-born Fumilayo Joseph completed a sculpture for the city of Jos, Nigeria. Popularly known as "Mama Jos," mounted to a pedestal and situated on a strategic roundabout in front of the main market square in the center of Jos, Mama Jos can be seen as a quotation of the projects by African American artists who have worked on similar subjects. This sculpture comes many years after Richmond Barthé's Blackberry Woman (1932), John Biggers's Market (c.1958), and Jacob Lawrence's Meat Market (1964). Like her predecessors, she carries a huge basket or basin of goods on her head and holds her son to her right side with one hand, while marching briskly to or from the market. The expression on her face, the son on her side, her strides, her wrapper, and the slippers on her feet, define her as an "everywoman" -- the embodiment of the history and spirit of women who toil to hold African families and communities together but have yet to obtain the full benefits of their labor. This big burden and immense responsibility she carries is a reminder that much work needs to be done towards the empowerment of women in African societies. If the market place is a universal place of exchange that varies from country to country, an examination of the market setting prepared by Lawrence tells us that the African American woman also needs to be empowered in order for her to succeed in the American market. Nobody is more eloquent in this area than Betye Saar, particularly in her series, Workers + Warriors - The Return of Aunt Jemima.[77]


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