African American Art
By Richard Powell
Black Arts Movement, Abstraction, and Beyond
Art's capacity to endow the artist, viewer, and others with self-affirmation and a sense of cultural authority became the benchmark for the BLACK ARTS MOVEMENT of the late 1960s and early 1970s. During this period African American writers, performing artists, and visual artists made black culture and the political struggles of black peoples worldwide their raison d'être. Slogans like "Black Is Beautiful" and "Black Power," as well as jazz and soul music, became the soundtrack for works by painter Murry DePillars, mixed-media artist Ben Jones, and muralist Dana Chandler. Jeff Donaldson, a cofounder of the Chicago-based black artist collective AFRI-COBRA, not only added to this milieu with his own African textile-inspired, mixed-media works, but he wrote influential art manifestos and helped organize international expositions of black artists in Africa and North America.
Many artists whose careers extended back to the 1930s and 1940s resurfaced with a renewed sense of racial solidarity and political insurgency during the Black Arts Movement. Painters LOIS MAILOU JONES and JOHN BIGGERS and sculptor and printmaker ELIZABETH CATLETT all aligned themselves with the younger generation of black artists, creating works that underscored their shared interest in African design sensibilities, the black figure, and the continuing struggle for civil rights.
For many abstract artists like Frank Bowling, Sam Gilliam, Richard Hunt, BARBARA CHASE-RIBOUD, and Raymond Saunders, critical and commercial success provided evidence that black artists were capable of overcoming racial obstacles and taking their rightfully earned places within the contemporary scene. These advancements were made all the more emphatic by the achievements of artists like the Washington painter Alma Thomas, who, at the age of eighty, was the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art in 1972. Artists who subscribed to a black nationalist agenda argued that Thomas (along with the other well-known black abstractionists) created works that did not challenge the aesthetic sensibilities of the white cultural mainstream. In response, abstractionists like Al Loving, Ed Clark, Joe Overstreet, Jack Whitten, and William T. Williams felt that this line of thinking showed how pervasive more conservative approaches to the visual arts were in African American communities. Both positions demonstrated how difficult it was for even the most sophisticated art connoisseurs to glean cultural elements out of abstractions. The same myopia often existed in interpretations of works by folk artists like CLEMENTINE HUNTER and the evangelist-turned-painter SISTER GERTRUDE MORGAN.
As artists and audiences grew more conversant in the diverse ways that one could express black culture, the 1970s and 1980s ushered in a variety of artists and artworks all comfortably operating under the rubric of Afro-American art. From the photorealism of painter Barkley L. Hendricks and neomannerist stylizations of painter Ernie Barnes to the cloth-and canvas accretions of mixed-media artist BENNY ANDREWS and altar-like installations of sculptor BETYE SAAR, African American art could no longer be contained in neat, stylistic categories. The important exhibitions of past and present African American art organized by curators DAVID C. DRISKELL and Edmund B. Gaither and the definitive histories and art publications of Elsa Honig Fine, Samella Lewis, and Ruth Waddy helped educate the experts and uninformed public alike on all that might constitute an African American art.
African American Art and Postmodernism
By the mid- to late 1980s earlier definitions of African American art would be supplanted by the postmodernist tenets of cultural relativity, art-as-performance, critical inquiries of art and society through one's work, and interrogations of identity, geography, and history. Several artistic precursors to this new generation had already begun to exhibit these more provocative, postmodernist characteristics in their work. For example, by 1975 artist DAVID HAMMONS was already creating sculptures from black cultural detritus (hair, food, artifacts, etc.) that ironically commented on black identity. Around the same time ROBERT COLESCOTT was making outlandish, cartoon-like paintings that poked fun at the art establishment, cultural conservatives, and ethnocentrism. In contrast, conceptual artist Adrian Piper countered the reigning avant-garde of her day with performances that placed racism at the center of art matters. Also at this time artist Houston Conwill wrestled with the notion of African American space, initially through site-specific earthworks and, later, through culturally informed diagrams and signs.
These pioneers of an African American visual postmodernism helped put into motion a different set of visual criteria in contemporary art: models that, in turn, have engendered an innovative group of artists. This inventive group includes sculptors Alison Saar and Renée Stout and photographers Albert Chong and Lyle Ashton Harris, who explore concepts of objecthood and fetishism; visual artists like JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT, Glenn Ligon, and Lorna Simpson, for whom issues of gender and language are central in art; photographers Dawoud Bey, Renee Cox, and Lorraine O'Grady and painters Kerry James Marshall and Howardena Pindell, each of whom presents the black body as a site of theoretical warfare, social research, and desire; and conceptualists like Gary Simmons, KARA WALKER, and FRED WILSON who, through installation art, have problematized American history and the psychology of racism so that display and spectatorship can no longer be viewed as purely innocent acts.
Copyright (c) 2005 Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
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