"Black Spirit": Works on Paper by Eldzier Cortor
by Matt Backer
In 1949, Cortor extended his study of the African Diaspora to Caribbean cultures. The diverse environments of Jamaica, Cuba, and Haiti provided fresh inspiration for his exploration of abstract design and the beauty of the black female form. In contrast to the political placidity of the Sea Islands, however, West Indies societies witnessed frequent unrest. Cortor spent most of his twelve-month fellowship in Haiti, teaching at the Centre d'Art in Port au Prince. Shortly after returning to the United States, he learned that a number of his colleagues had been killed by the dictatorial regime.
Though Cortor did not artistically respond to this experience at the time, the American press's frequent reports of terror in the brutal regime of "Papa Doc" Duvalier may have recalled painful memories of Haiti. The series L'Abbatoire [The Slaughterhouse] (ca. 1967) seems to be a response to the horrific tactics of Duvalier's henchmen, the Tonton Macoutes, who encouraged the popular myth that they were demons, sometimes hanging the corpses of their victims as a warning to the Duvaliers' enemies. Cortor appears to isolate this practice as a metaphor for the contempt in which Duvalier and his henchmen held human life. Though individual forms are impossible to discern, the red and black shapes evoke blood, muscle, and tendon. Sharp black hooks stand out against the white background in L'Abbatoire No. IV (fig. 5). Are these cuts of meat, hanging in a butcher shop, as the title superficially suggests, or human remains, brutalized beyond recognition? Rather than definitively answering this question, Cortor seems to confront us with the horror of life under Duvalier's reign of terror, where human remains receive no more dignity than butchered meat. In L'Abbatoire, Cortor demonstrates that he can represent the suffering of the Black race with as much force as he typically depicts its beauty.
Inspired by sources ranging from the preeminent theorist of African American art to a weekly comic strip, Cortor continually returned to a glorification of African American people, in studies of the female form, heroic genre scenes, or in unsettling meditations on political oppression. Drawing on resilient manifestations of African heritage in locations as diverse as the Gullah's Sea Islands, the West Indies, and his own childhood neighborhood, Cortor perfected his celebration of all African Americans, especially in his elegant designs of the Black Woman, the essential symbol of the Black Spirit.
1. Mary Sherman, "Gallery Showing Explores Artist's Roots," The Boston Herald (April 7, 2002): 65.
2. The New Negro (Albert & Charles Boni, Inc., 1925; reprint New York: Simon &Schuster, 1992): 264.
3. (London and New York: Harper and Brothers, 1941): 298.
4. 1945, Cortor papers, Smithsonian Archives, 21.
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