A Continent without Borders: Africa's Influence on African American Artists
by Nnamdi Elleh
Embracing the Muse: Africa and African American Artists is a reminder that the impact of the relationship between African and African American cultures on twentieth-century American art is yet to be fleshed out by scholars and museum authorities. Some of the paintings in the exhibition reveal how certain artists favored an image of African culture as timeless and varied; an image that endures around the world, but especially in the United States where so many people have African ancestry. Some of the works reveal how artists incorporated into their projects esoteric knowledge of the African continent with the express purpose of reclaiming their African heritage. Moreover, the artists featured in this exhibition produced images that are historical, politicized, and highly animated, and that function as tools for locating and asserting an African American identity. This identity demands the right to be different from, related to, and respected by dominant constructions of American society. These artists strove to empower African Americans to claim their civil rights and to participate in the economic and political activities that impact their lives.
The exhibition also features objects that visually celebrate Africa as a continent; and in so doing, they dissolve the geopolitical boundaries that were imposed by European colonial authorities at the end of the nineteenth century. By erasing these boundaries, artists obtained the freedom to imagine modern African and African American life by borrowing visual icons from any part of the continent; they also implicitly called attention to the history and arbitrary construction of those borders; underneath their celebration of an eternal African continent lies a mournful awareness of history's destruction. As an unstable repository for historical and geographical discourses under pressure to take their places in the history of twentieth-century American art, the artworks featured in this exhibition leave us to muse over their multiple meanings.
Finally, by bringing to the attention of the viewer how African American artists used archeology, history, and geography to instruct a new cultural consciousness in modern American art, Embracing the Muse: Africa and African American Artists, raises important questions that will continue to question the manner in which scholars and museum authorities study, reconsider, and re/present African and African American art to the general public.
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