In honor of Black History Month, Dublin art instructor and resident fine artist Earl Schofield has put together an art show of African American artists. The show is in The Lehmann Dining Room where it can be studied and enjoyed.
A Statement by Show Curator Earl Schoefield
Quick, name a famous African American Artist. Can you do it? Can you name three? How about a famous African American athlete, dancer, actor, writer or musician? If you asked me to do this, I could do it, but it would take me a minute, and I spent my life studying art. It would take me no time at all to name famous actors, athletes, dancers, writers or musicians and I'll bet it would be for you too. Why?
Well, we might start with who holds the keys to the museums, still mostly white men. I mean the National African American Museum of History and Culture just opened three years ago and is home to the only permanent exhibit of African American Art on the Smithsonian Mall. Africans were first recorded as arriving in British North America in 1619. So what's the deal?
I have a theory, hang on everyone, some white guy has a theory. Here it is, tell me what you think. You can't take paintings with you. Well, that's the basic seed of the idea anyway. "The African American Experience," has been one riddled with displacement and transience. Nobody ever asked an African to pack a bag before slapping shackles on them and stuffing them into a ship. Once in America, a slave's possessions were negligible to say the least. Families were regularly sold apart from one another. When you can't depend on knowing your wife or children won't be taken away from you at a whim, you aren't worried about your "stuff." What you CAN take with you, is knowledge. You can continue crafts in an African tradition; weaving, pottery, carpentry, and more importantly, you can carry stories and songs with you no matter where you go.
There is another important factor. Quick, name a famous White American Painter that lived before 1800. There were a couple but most of you never heard of them, and honestly, they weren't so hot. American Visual Arts were laughable by European standards, and they let us know it too. It isn't until the late 19th century that America begins producing any famous white artists, and then, they are mostly working in an older European style. It isn't until the 1950's that America excels in the global art world.
African Americans had and still have, a visual culture that has had enormous influence, but it has largely not taken shape as visual art. It exists in a folk art tradition, in weaving, crafts, definitely in various fashion trends, but the general American poverty of fine artists, combined with a people disrupted by slavery, and post-emancipation emigrations, and kept from moving into the middle class by systemic racist policies, means it isn't until the Harlem Renaissance that we begin to see African American artists in numbers. And then "renaissance" isn't even the right term, because it is really a birth, not a re-birth for Africa American artists. It is no coincidence that these artists emerge at the same time that Jazz was entering the American mainstream. Jazz is an art form that developed almost exclusively from African Americans and that many consider the ONLY original art form to have ever been developed in America.
When I look at this work as a whole, a few things emerge. First, I notice that the art breaks into three groups; African Americans working strictly within a European or formalist artistic tradition, African Americans working with European artistic traditions but using African American subjects, and finally, African Americans trying to develop an original African American art form, the way that Jazz did in music.
The body of work in this show is strictly African American, but there are two ways that this art interacts with African art. It is likely that there were generations of African Americans who were utterly without any contact with or influence of, African Art, but eventually, some artists sought to reconnect with that lost heritage, some going so far as to travel to Africa themselves. The second way this art interacts with African art is weirdly ironic because, in the early twentieth century, European art was being hugely influenced directly by African art without being credited. To give you the short version, Picasso had seen and even purchased illegally, some African sculptures and almost directly copied their style which led to the emergence of cubism and various forms of modernism that utilized simplification, exaggeration, arbitrary color, and flat surfaces. This "European" art, born out of African art, then went on to dominate the international art world, and eventually, African Americans emulated these influences too. Essentially, art stolen from Africa by Europeans, copying the artwork of their captors, that is, in fact, also stolen from Africa.
Artist work and discussion by Earl Schofield.
Joshua Johnson who was a freed slave and Robert Seldon Duncanson are artists working completely within a European tradition, or more correctly, working within the American tradition of doing a poor job of trying to work within the European tradition. There would have been precious few African American people with the money to commission portraits of themselves, so it is no wonder these two artists work is indistinguishable from other white painters of the time.
Our next painter, Henry Ossawa Tanner, who is one of my favorite painters, by the way, was working a full hundred years after Johnson and Duncanson. Tanner's career is complicated. Throughout it, he produces fine examples of impressionism influenced realism, but for a while, he focuses on images of African Americans, and he gives voice to their experience. These are the images many find to be his most important work, but Tanner emigrated to France, settling in Paris, to avoid the racism of his time. He largely abandons this work in favor of exclusively Christian themed work in a more modern iteration of Europe's traditional painters.
Aaron Douglass is by far the most famous of the first wave of Harlem Renaissance visual artists. Douglas was one of the first to try and develop an "African American art," an art he defined as having an "earthy spirituality." Not only does his work achieve this goal, but this quality remains a key element of black American artists, visually, musically and in literature to this day. Douglass's work stands out from his peers as unique in style, but clear influences of the international style still pervade it. Socialist realism can be seen in much of the art of this time, from the Americans Charles Sheeler and Edward Hopper to the Mexican Diego Rivera to the ubiquitous Soviet murals.
The artwork of Horace Pippin, however, is one hundred percent within the tradition of American Primitive painting whose best known modern example is Grandma Moses, a contemporary of Pippin. While Moses's work is filled with nostalgia, however, Pippin's work is not, describing everything from the Spartan conditions of rural black life, contemporary casual urban moments, historical paintings, images from his experience fighting in World War I and even religious themes. For me, Pippin may be the most exciting artist in this group for the uniqueness of his vision, the stunning breadth of subjects and what feels to me, to be an art that is very, American in nature.
Coming a generation after Pippin is Charles White. This is the work that best expresses the trans-global influences of Africa I described earlier. Here we have an African American subject, depicted by an African American artist, in a manner that is derivative of the international cubist, expressionist and Social realist movements of Europe, which were themselves developed out of African Sculpture.
Bob Thompson's "Tree" is another strange animal, based on two compositions by the Spanish artist, Franceso Goya, this work contains some vaguely Africanized faces in a vaguely African palette but in a style heavily influenced by Matisse. Thompson built a career mining European art in a strangely satisfying reversal of appropriation.
Jacob Lawrence came out of the second wave of Harlem Renaissance artists. He was one of the first artists to be trained in an art school run for and by African Americans. Lawrence's work is a unique blending of cubism and social realism, mixed with his own palette into what is probably the style most closely related to Jazz and a uniquely "African American" visual art form. Jacob Lawrence is by far the most famous artist we have seen so far and is credited for having, "broken the color barrier" into the "mainstream" (White) art world. Lawrence depicts black American experiences in a "black" painting style. Lawrence is best known for his work depicting specifically African American history and African American historical figures.
I am not a fan of collage. Which is strange because I grew up with a mother who was a chronic quilter. Today every member of her extended family sleeps under a quilt made by my mother. I am also a huge fan of the quilt art from the now famous African American community of Gees Bend which will be discussed later. However, I find Romare Beardon's collages to be such a fitting extension of American Primitivism, the quilt making tradition, and cubism as to be impossible not to appreciate. This work resonates with rural American folk traditions and continues the ubiquitous theme of travel, migration, and transience that permeates African American history.
Barcley Hendricks's work forms the 1970's runs against mainstream art's domination by high modernist abstraction and conceptual art. Along with Phillip Perlman and Chuck Close, Hendricks works in a realist style, but his imagery embraces the Black cultural renaissance of the '70s. There were the zoot suits of the '20s and '30s, the suit coats of the '50s Jazz players, a chaos of styles in the '60s, and in the '70s, the civil rights movement had made significant headway, urban black neighborhoods gave birth to "naturals" (Afro) haircuts, the television series "Roots" was educating, shocking and inspiring Black and White Americans both, "Blaxploitation" cinema was going strong, and television was suddenly full of black faces with shows like "Sanford and Sons," "Good Times," "Fat Albert," "Soul Train," "The Jeffersons," "What's Happening," ruling the airwaves. Hendricks's large, noble paintings of Black people were very much a part of the, "I'm Black and I'm Proud" movement of the time.
Sam Gilliam, Alma Thomas, and Howardena Pindell, and Martin Puryear on the other hand, are four examples of African Americans who were working within the dominant style of their time, high modernist abstraction, which by definition, does not utilize symbolism, story, or even form to express anything, but is essentially, interested strictly in formal relationships of color, texture, movement and so on. Although Puryear's work is at least suggestive of or open to imaginative interpretive leaping off.
James Lesesne Wells is a printmaker very much in the shadow of Matisse but in very "African " colors of strongly saturated black, yellow, red and green.
Lorna Simpson, Joseph Norman, Willie Cole, Glenn Ligon, all come from "my" generation when the predominant style was "conceptual" or postmodern art. Each uses different forms, Norman uses a traditional form to explore new subjects, Simpson mixes photography and text to create new "gestalt" interpretations of the whole, Cole repurposes and represents the discarded to create objects in a new visual language, and Ligon utilizes visually expressive text to deliver a message. What each has in common is an interest in exploring issues of African American identity without using imagery to do so.
Kara Walker, a generation right behind, emerged as a young prodigy and was catapulted to early fame. Today, her work is some of the most easily recognized, and she is probably the most famous living African American artist today. Walker did another 180-spin and returned to using imagery to express ideas and explorations about identity, race, history, feminism, and others. Walker "appropriates" a visual art form of her historical oppressor by using the cut paper silhouette, a favorite in the antebellum south, she also steals the hideous characterizations of the time and the creates sex and violence filled murals with stories that shock, make us think, laugh and generally destroy all kinds of romantic myths of the American past. Walker's work is the perfect mix of medium and message.
Kahinde Wiley personifies an artist working in a European Tradition but utilizing African American subjects. Eight years younger than Walker, Wiley is only slightly less famous than she is. His most recent claim to fame was to be chosen by President Barak Obama to do his presidential portrait upon leaving office. It has been a common trope from the beginning of modernism, to affect change by replacing the wealthy and powerful, who for hundreds of years were the only ones able to afford to have a portrait done, with equally large and regal paintings of more common people or even peasants.
Wiley does the same, with very realistic oil paintings that mimic these portraits of kings and popes but employ highly decorative or patterned backgrounds, often at jarring contrast with the often decidedly urban and youthful dress of his subjects, sporting backwards baseball hats, gold teeth, gold chains, and baggy pants. Wiley's work screams out, like Barkley Hendricks a generation before him, "I'm Black, and I'm proud, I deserve to be on the walls of museums too." It is little wonder Obama chose him. While most of Wiley's subjects are everyday people emulating the poses of the powerful, Wiley finally gets to paint a "royal" portrait of an African American man who really did rise to be the most powerful person in the world.