Loïs Mailon Jones's 1938
"Alain Locke's 1925 manifesto to younger artists, 'The Legacy of Ancestral Arts', challenged them to draw upon the power of African art, as avant-garde artists in Europe had done. However, for the majority of African-American artists, no less than their European counterparts, Africa was largely a place of fantasy. Locke's argument for embracing the African legacy was further complicated by the scientific community's disparagement of African culture as 'primitive', and by Europe's exploitative colonial relationship with Africa. Despite the artists' best intentions, their work often failed to escape the systems of appropriation in which it was rooted: Africa was made to serve as a metaphor for exoticism and sensuality or as a propagandistic symbol of cultural aspiration. It was in this last sense that African motifs function in certain works by Aaron Douglas and Loïs Mailou Jones.
At the height of the New Negro Arts Movement...stereotypes of Africa as dark, savage, deadly and sensual were employed by a range of artists, from Richard Bruce Nugent and Countee Cullen writing about an imagined 'dark continent' to Archibald J. Motley Jr and Richmond Barthé making art works about ethnic types and racial temperaments. African-American singer and actor Paul Robeson also contributed to this mythology with several films created in the 1930s, each with imaginary African settings and Edgar Rice Burroughs like encounters between noble whites and savage blacks. Writings that extolled the virtues of the arts of Africa, and exhibitions that gathered some of the most striking examples of African artistry, encouraged many visual artists of African discent to look at their 'legacy of ancestral arts' and base their work upon this inheritance. For some this amounted to little more that the insertion of an African mask or figurine into an academic still life, as if its very presence among the flowers and furnishings racialized these paintings. For others the integration of mask-like forms and sculptural elements into semi-representational formats was a visual retort to Jean Toomer's prophetic African-American equation: 'The Dixie Pike has grown from a goat path in Africa'."
"From their respective bases (in France and Denmark) [the Martiniquan scholar Louis Achille and the African-American painter William H. Johnson] shared an interest in the then popular notion of 'the primitive'. In his essay 'The Negroes and Art' Achille attempted to describe the 'Negro's aesthetic constitution', a sensibility informed by an innate sense of rhythm and spirituality. Despite the unscientific (and often racist) presuppositions of these two points of view, what they both argued for was an acknowledgement of the cultural importance and artistic genius of the 'folk'.
" The dominant narrative of the Harlem Renaissance was nostalgia, especially for those, like Robeson's father, who had participated in the Great Migration that brought hundreds of thousands of African-Americans out of the South into northern cities during the 1910s and 1920's. In that move north, the dominant refrain was a longing for the South, a note that is overwhelming in Jean Toomer's Cane, the short fiction of Rudolph Fisher, and in the short stories and novels of Zora Neale Hurston. Much of this writing is pre-realism rather than post realism, as in the literary modernism of the last nineteenth century that is so often regarded as the model for the black movement of the 1920s....Here Robeson uniquely embodies the dominant note of the Harlem Renaissance, for his enormous success in the 1920s comes as a concert singer of the spirituals, music of the ninetieth century, rather than as a singer of the blues or jazz of the 1920s. White and black romantic constructions of the Negro's cultural identity dominated in the Harlem Renaissance, and those forms that were most successful were those that blended both."
"And this is not suprising. The 1920s was a transitional period in American history for African-Americans socially, economically and politically, one in which the locus of black presence is shifting northward and urbanward, thereby remapping the African-American landscape and the American perception of what blackness means in American culture. Negro history inevitably remains in the subconscious of America's most creative white people and the South remains in the subconscious of the recent black migrant."
Extract from 'Re/Birth of a Nation' by Richard J. Powell
Bacground image of Les Fetiches, Loïs Mailou Jones 1938