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

by Nnamdi Elleh




1. In this statement, one can understand why John Biggers and many African American artists, as well as non-artists, travel to Africa to discover their cultural roots. See John Biggers, Ananse: The Web of Life In Africa (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1962), p. 4.
2. There is currently no definitive written history of African art and architecture, and it should be noted that almost nothing of modern African art is discussed in contemporary surveys of African art and architecture. For now, see Tom Phillips et al., The Art of A Continent (New York, NY: Prestel, 1999); Monica Blackmun Visona et al., A History of Art in Africa (New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 2001).
3. The use of masks in celebrations is common among different classes and ethnic groups in Africa. No single meaning can explain all the possible uses of masks in Africa, but the use of masks as an ancient practice, based on available archeological evidence, dates before 6000 B.C. See Jean-Dominique Lajoux, Rock Paintings of the Tassili (New York, NY: The World Publishing Company, 1963); and Selected Works from the National Museum of African Art (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999).
4. Frank Willet, African Art (New York, NY: Thames & Hudson World of Art, 2002), p. 56. Also, follow up with J. R. Harding, "Interpreting the 'White Lady' Rock Paintings of South-West Africa: Some Considerations," South African Archeological Bulletin, 23 (1968), pp. 31-34; and David Coulson and Alec Campbell, African Rock Art Paintings and Engravings On Stone (New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams), pp. 38-45.
5. Khosa speaking people are popularly known as San people and they reside in a large geographical area located in the Kalahari Desert. Often, scholars use the derogatory and biased term, "Bushmen" to refer to these people regardless of the fact that they know what their ethnic identities are and what languages they speak. Consequently, many texts on the White Lady of Brandberg often describe the cave paintings as "Bushman" drawings in order to denigrate the sketches and belittle the cultures of the people who made them. For more information on ethnonyms of Africa, consult, Daniel P. Biebuyck et al., African Ethnonyms: Index to Art-Producing Peoples of Africa (New York, NY: G.K. Hall & Co., 1996).
6. Willet, African Art, pp. 53-59.
7. V.Y. Mudimbe's The Idea of Africa (African Systems of Thought) (Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994) and The Invention of Africa: Philosophy and the Order of Knowledge (Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988) are expansions of this same topic. Also, see Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992); Annie E. Coombes, Reinventing Africa (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994); and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "Europe, African Art and the Uncanny," in Africa: The Art of a Continent, ed. Tom Phillips (New York, NY: Prestel, 1999), pp. 27-30; there is also Olu Oguibe's "In the 'Heart of Darkness,'" in ed. Olu Oguibe and Okwui Enwezor, Reading the Contemporary African Art From Theory to the Market Place (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), pp. 320-327.
8. See Werner Gillon, A Short History of African Art (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1991), p. 242; Robin Poynor, "Yoruba and the Fon", in A History of Art in Africa, p. 252. It is worth noting that Shango and other Yoruban spirits have become central to another group of Americans of African heritage: African Brazilians. The orixás of Brazil's candomblé religion are a syncretization of Catholic saints and Yoruban deities. See Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (New York, NY and London, England: Routledge, 1996).
9. See Pamela McClusky et al., Art from Africa: Long Steps Never Broke a Back (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002) p. 267.
10. Willet, African Art, pp. 119-121.
11. See Guy C. McElroy, "The Foundations For Change 1880-1920," in African American Artists 1880-1987: Selections from the Evans-Tibbs Collection, Washington D.C., and Seattle: Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and University of Washington Press, 1989, pages 25 and 26.
12. See Jean-Louis Bourgeois, Carollee Pelos, and Basil Davidson, Spectacular Vernacular: the Adobe Tradition, New York: Aperture Books, 1989; Labelle Prussin, Hatumere: Islamic Design in West Africa (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985); and James Morris and Suzanne Preston Blier, Butabu: Adobe Architecture of West Africa (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press, 2003).
13. See Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (New York, NY: McPherson & Co, 1953), pp. 15-20. Deren outlines the basic guiding principles of the Haitian Voudoun religion. In pp. 247-262 Deren explores the relationship between ritual and possession through the mediation of dance, and posits that dance is the center at which all aspects of Voudoun converge.
14. See Moyo Okediji, African Renaissance: Old Forms, New Images in Yoruba Art (Denver, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2002); Larry Dark and Phillip J.C. Dark, Introduction to Benin Art & Technology (Oxford, England: The Clarendon Press, 1973); African Historiography: Essays in Honor of Jacob Ade Ajayi (Lagos, Nigeria: Longman Group United Kingdom, 1993).
15. For more on the rock paintings of Africa, see Werner Gillon, A Short History of African Art (New York, NY: Facts on File Inc., 1985), pp. 36-54.
16. Frank Elgar, "The Art of Tassili," in J. D. Lajoux, The Rock Paintings of Tassili (London, England: Thames & Hudson, 1963), p. 20.
17. Labelle Prussin et al., African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place, and Gender (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995).
18. Africa: The Art of a Continent, ed. Tom Phillips (New York, NY: Prestel Publishing, 1995), p. 12.
19. See Michel Leiris and Jacqueline Delange, African Art, trans. by Macheal Ross (London, England: Thames & Hundson, 1968), p. 83.
20. Elgar, "The Art of Tassili," pp. 19-20.
21. Jan Vansina, Art History In Africa (White Plains, NY: Longman Publishing Group, 1989), p. 6.
22. When the relationship between ancient cultures of Africa, including ancient Egyptian culture, was first approached by the Senegalese-born scholar, Cheik Anta Diop, it was in a polemical tone that caused several ripples in the art historical world. Rather than challenge his scholarship or investigate his propositions, scholars of African art ignored Diop, and instead approached their studies of African history within the preexisting schema that reinforce the viewpoint that Africa south of the Sahara Desert does not have history. Martin Bernal's Black Athena: the Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilizations (The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985) (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989), was received by some scholars as intellectual treason because it was seen as threatening the established order of global historical discourses. Not only did Bernal suggests that some of the most powerful Pharaohs who ruled in certain periods of dynastic Egypt, including the third, the fourth, and the eighteenth dynasties, were black, he also proposed that African culture had a major impact on Greece long before Greece emerged as a civilized state.
23. In his writings, Matheus explores the various ways that blacks were represented in American and European literature that reinforced existing colonial and social prejudices. See Frederick Matheus, "Some Aspects of the Negro Interpreted in Contemporary American and European Literature," in Negro: An Anthology, ed. Nancy Cunard, trans. by Samuel Beckett (London, England: Nancy Cunard at Wishart & Co, 1934), pp. 106-111; and "The Colored Americans in France," The Crisis Magazine, February, 1919.
24. Catherine Bernard, "Confluence: Harlem Renaissance, Modernism, and Negritude: Paris in the 1920s-1930s," in Exploration in the City of Light: African American Artists in Paris, 1945­1965 (New York, NY: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 1996), pp. 21-27.
25. See W.E.B. DuBois's essay, "Criteria of Negro Art," in The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, ed. David Lewis (New York, NY: Penguin USA, 1995), p. 102.
26. See W.E.B. DuBois, "Black America," in Negro: An Anthology, pp. 48-152. This is an historical survey of the impact of slavery and post-slavery era on the living conditions of black Americans; also see Nancy Cunard, "A reactionary review of Dr. DuBois, The Crisis, and the NAACP in 1932," in Negro: An Anthology, pp. 142-147. Cunard's article reviews the activities of the editor of The Crisis, the official publication of the NAACP, and it discusses the conditions and major events that inspired the stories published in the magazine.
27. One of the points Marcus Garvey discusses in "Africa for Africans," is the idea of keeping Africa for African peoples. See "Africa for Africans" in The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, pp.17-28.
28. Appiah, "The Invention of Africa," My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture, pp. 3-27.
29. Appiah, "Why Africa? Why Art?" in Africa: The Art of a Continent, p. 21.
30. Léopold Sédar Senghor, "Lessons of Leo Frobenius," in ed. Eike Haberland, Leo Frobenius 1873-1973: An Anthology (Wiesbaden, Germany: Franz Steiner, 1973), pp. vii-xiii. Also see Frobenius, The Childhood of Man: A Popular Account of the Lives, Customs, and Thoughts of the Primitive Races, trans. by A.H. Keene (London, England: Seeley & Company Limited, 1909). This volume is useful in spite of its degrading opinions about the people whom Frobenius calls "primitive races." It contains several mythical stories about Africa and even shows some of the sketches from the prehistoric caves.
31. My source for the colleges listed here is Alvia J. Wardlaw's essay, "A Spiritual Libation: Promoting an African Heritage in the Black College," in Black Art Ancestral Legacy: The African Impulse in African-American Art (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 1990), p. 53.
32. Wardlaw, p. 53.
33. Wardlaw, p. 53.
34. Wardlaw, p. 60.
35. Wardlaw, p. 60.
36. More information on this exhibition can be obtained from the exhibition catalogue African Negro Art (New York, NY: Museum of Modern Art, 1935).
37. Alain Locke's "The New Negro" is included in The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, pp. 46-51.
38. "The Negro Takes His Place in American Art" is also reprinted in The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, pp. 134-137.
39. See Albert C. Barnes, "Negro Art and America," in The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, p. 131.
40. See Langston Hughes, "Distinguished Visitor," reprinted in Explorations in the City of Light: African American Artists in Paris, 1945-1965 (New York, NY: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 1996), p. 13. In this essay, Hughes narrates his meeting with Alain Locke, and the beginning of a friendship that would lead to projects between the two and other black scholars.
41. bell hooks, "Performance Practice as a Site of Opposition," in ed. Catherine Ugwu, Let's Get It On: The Politics of Black Performance (London and Seattle: The ICA and Bay Press, 1995), p. 212. See also Ralph Matthews, "Negro Theatre - A Dodo Bird," in Negro: An Anthology, pp. 194-198. Matthews's historical review of the African American theater helps us to appreciate the differences between early African American theater and performance projects from the 1970s to the present time.
42. One of the best texts on the coordination between the visual arts and other art forms is Manfredo Tafuri, The Sphere and the Labyrinth: Avant-Gardes and Architecture from Piranesi to the 1970s, trans. by Pellergrino d'Acierno and Robert Connolly (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), p. 104.
43. Tafuri, The Sphere and the Labyrinth: Avant-Gardes and Architecture from Piranesi to the 1970s, p. 104. Other examples include San Francisco based Rhodesia Jones, who performs to promote incarcerated women's self-awareness and self-esteem through the production of solo stories that are based on personal history; Sherman Flemming considers his performance as a composite of "childhood games, ritual dance actions, and quotidian gestures"; and filmmaker Marlon Riggs used his own personal history to explore broader questions of identity and identity politics within the black community (Black Is . . . Black Ain't (1995)).
44. Much has been written on ritual performance and mass participation. See Victor Turner, "Social Dramas in Brazilian Umbanda: The Dialectics of Meaning," in The Anthropology of Performance (New York, NY: PAJ Publications, 1987/1992), pp. 33-71.
45. See African Philosophy: Selected Readings, ed. Albert G. Mosley (Engelwood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1995); Geoffry Parrinder, African Traditional Religion (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1976).
46. For more information on Beauford Delaney's abstract paintings, see Beauford Delaney: Liquid Light - Paris Abstractions, 1954­1970 (New York, NY: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 1999).
47. See Robin Poynor, "West Africa," in A History of Art In Africa, p. 211.
48. See Michael Harris, "Art of the African Diaspora" in A History of Art in Africa, pp. 500 ­ 527.
49. Tafuri, The Sphere and the Labyrinth: Avant-Gardes and Architecture from Piranesi to the 1970s, p. 104.
50. See bell hooks, "Performance Practice as a Site of Opposition," from Let's Get it On: The Politics of Black Performance, pp. 210-221. hooks explores the development of African American performance projects from the civil rights campaign era in the 1960s to the present times. See also bell hooks, "Feminism as Persistent Critique of History: What's Love Got to do with it?" in The Fact of Blackness: Franz Fanon and Visual Representation, ed. Alan Read (London, England: Bay Press, 1996), pp. 76-85.
51. Sandra L. Richards, "The Early Plays," in Ancient Songs Set Ablaze (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1996), pp. 3-12. Richards explores how the performance of Run of Locust You Have Your Fine Face, 1969, by Femi Osofisan, brings contemporary issues in Nigerian society to the audience in a performative process. This suggests a process of public activism on the African continent that might have influenced the tradition of using the theatre as a stage for debating and bringing to the audience the issues that impact their lives.
52. See hooks, "Performance Practice as a Site of Opposition," in Let's Get it On: The Politics of Black Performance, p 215.
53. See hooks, "Performance Practice as a Site of Opposition," in Let's Get it On: The Politics of Black Performance, p. 210.
54. An excellent example of this approach to art-making is Julie Dash's 1992 film Daughters of the Dust, which uses innovative performative, audio-visual, and editing strategies to tell a history of the trauma of slavery.
55. Homi K. Bhabha, "Day by Daywith Franz Fanon," in The Fact of Blackness: Franz Fanon and Visual Representation, pp.186-204. Bhabha explains the importance of Fanon's writing for contemporary issues of identity.
56. Theresa Leininger-Miller, New Negro Artist in Paris: African American Painters and Sculptors in the City of Light, 1922-1934 (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2002). This is one of the most comprehensive publications on this subject.
57. In the Introduction to Explorations in the City of Light: African American Artists in Paris, 1945-1965, Kinshasha Holman Conwill elucidates how the works of Barbara Chase-Riboud, Ed Clark, Harold Cousins, Beauford Delaney, Herbert Gentry, Lois Mailou Jones, and Larry Potter defined an international "cross-cultural experience of influence, confluence and originality." Moreover, Conwill also suggests that the artwork created by African American artists in Paris defies international borders. In the "School of Paris at Mid-Century," also in Explorations in the City of Light, Peter Selz suggests that the work of Cuban-born Wifredo Lam, who incorporates the Afro-Cuban Santeria ancient ritual of divination in his work, demonstrates the level of cultural interaction between the Surrealists and non-Western artists. Lam was one of the participants in André Breton's 1947 exhibition Exposition International du Surréalisme which featured 87 artists from 27 different countries. See also, Gardner William Smith, "Black Man in Europe," also in Explorations in the City of Light, p. 16, where Smith explains how life was easier in Paris for African Americans because of racial accord.
58. See Mary Schmidt Campbell, "Introduction," in Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America (New York, NY: Studio Museum in Harlem and Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1987), pp. 11-56. Campbell gives a brief history of the emergence of many Harlem Renaissance artists.
59. There is a lot of scholarship on the influence of African sculpture on the art of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and other members of the cubist movement at the turn of the twentieth century. See Robert Rosenblum, Cubism and Twentieth-Century Art (New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 2001); Edward Fry, Cubism (New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, 1966).
60. For more information issues of primitivism, see Marianna Torgovnick, Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1990).
61. Myth has it that Europa was a princess from Tyre/Sidon. Zeus fell in love with Europa when he saw her picking flowers with her female companions. Zeus transformed himself into a bull and then seduced and abducted her.
62. Aimé Césaire, "Calling the Magician: A Few Words for a Caribbean Civilization," in Refusal of the Shadows: Surrealism and the Caribbean, trans. by Michael Richardson and Krzysztof Fijatowski (London and New York: Verso, 1996), pp. 119-122. Césaire discusses the problem of poetry in the Caribbean by positing that the appreciation of poetry is important in the development of the culture of the Caribbean people. Also see Suzanne Césaire, "Leo Frobenius and the Problem of Civilization" and "Surrealism and Us," in Refusal of the Shadows: Surrealism and the Caribbean, pp. 82-87, 123-126.
63. See John Golding, Cubism, History and an Analysis (London: Farber and Faber Limited, 1959); Robert Rosenblum, Cubism and Twentieth Century Art (New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 2001); and Edward Fry, Cubism (London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1966).
64. For more information on the original title, Flowers of Evil (Les fleurs du mal), see The Flowers of Evil, ed. Wallace Fowlie (New York: Bantam Books, 1963); Marthiel and Jackson Matheus, The Flowers of Evil (New York: New Direction Books, 1955); and Charles Baudelaire, Les fleurs du mal, (Paris: Édition Critique, 1917).
65. See Monica Blackmun Visona and Herbert M. Cole, "The Central Sudan" and "The Western Sudan," A History of Art in Africa, pages 146 and 261 respectively.
66. Thomas Crow, "Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts," in ed. Franscina Francis, Pollock and After: The Critical Debate (London, England and San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row Publishers, 1985), pp. 233-259. According to Crow, modernism designates "the characteristic practice that goes on within the social and ideological formation we call avant-garde."
67. Crow, "Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts," Pollock and After: The Critical Debate, pp. 233-259.
68. Robert Rosenblum, "Picasso and Braque, 1912­1924," in Cubism and Twentieth Century Art, p. 67.
69. See T.J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 5. Although Clark was writing about the Impressionist painters, this text agrees with Clark that in certain cases, the form of an image cannot be separated from its content.
70. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers, p. 6.
71. Clark, page 6.
72. For more information on the Dreyfus Affair, see Cécile Delhorbe (Paris, France: Editons Victor Attinger, 1932), Alain Pagès, translated by Eleanor Levieux, New Haven: Yale University Press; James F. Brennan, The Dreyfus Affair, New York: Peter Lang Press, 1998; and Martin P. Johnson, The Dreyfus Affair, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.
73. For further reading on the paintings and sketches that Lawrence produced in Nigeria, see Patricia Hill, "Jacob Lawrence's Paintings During the Protest Years of the 1960s," in ed. Peter Nesbett and Michelle DuBois, Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence (Seattle, WA: University of Washington, Press, 2000), pp. 175-200.
74. It is my belief that market forces and political changes are among the most powerful forces driving the cultural changes in many African countries, including Nigeria. See Appiah, In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture; Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992); and Clark, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers. I would argue that as far as market forces are concerned, regardless of the fact that Jameson did not address Africa in his text, Africans, Americans, Europeans, and Asians are buying from the same market when it comes to the major goods that help the contemporary economies around the world. For example, University equipment such as computers make no distinction whether their users are in Africa or the United States. Those who have access to them will have them, and this is determined by the availability of financial resources. Cars made in Germany, (for example the latest Mercedes Benz models) are imported to Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, and other African counties. Those who have very little money look up to the lifestyle of those who have very much as examples of "the good life." In fact, most of the manufactured goods at Onitsha market, Nigeria, are imported from abroad. As for the applicability of Clark, I am of the view that his methodology can help in understanding Africa's modern life when the activities of African modernist painters are studied along the lines that Clark used to study the activities of Manet and his followers in Paris.
75. Biggers, Ananse: The Web of Life In Africa, p. 27.
76. Biggers, Ananse: The Web of Life In Africa, p. 27.
77. For further information on the artwork of Betye Saar see the following exhibition catalogues: Betye Saar: Workers + Warriors - The Return of Aunt Jemima (New York, NY: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 1998); Betye Saar: In Service - A Version of Survival (New York, NY: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 2000); and Betye Saar: Colored - Consider the Rainbow (New York, NY: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 2002).


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