All of a sudden, or perhaps not so all of a sudden, I’ve been fiercely drawn (back) to the tradition of African American art.
When I reflect back on my interest in art, African-American art has never been that which has most or primarily inspired me- nor was it that which I actively sought out to unpack and understand. As far back as I can remember, Spanish and Mexican artists like Picasso, Jorge Arcos, Marco Razo, have been the artists that have inspired me the most because of their abstract style and powerful command of color and line. Then, post-2008, it was the iconography of East Africa, particularly of Ethiopia, which captured my heart and dazzled my imagination. Since then, my work has been preoccupied with imagining and re-imagining the sacred “wide eyed” angel, who, somehow, looks like me. Why do I choose to paint these angels– angels that bear afros instead of halos? Well, I am sure there is something deeply spiritual and psychological, which plays on my identity and also my affinities. Whatever the reason may be, this particular aspect of Ethiopian iconography is here to stay as a dominant theme in my work.
I’ve wanted the angels to play a different role in my art lately, though. In my subconscious, I think this desire may be related to my attempt to render a place for myself (in the real world) as an African-American working in Africa. I want to make sense of it, to forge connections, to discover similarities, to find something more substantial that unites me to her, besides the former part of my hyphenated identity. Christianity & features of the Black aesthetic remain prominent similarities. The antiquity of Abyssinia (and particularly of the antiquity of Christianity in Abyssinia) remains the prominent allure.
So, in searching for where and how these black angels would fly in my paintings, I decided: what better way than to anchor our mutual iconographies together in one painting? I imagined elaborate reinterpretations of these angels flying high over novel modes of symbolism which would represent the southern Black church– a church symbolically represented by crosses, short and fat and skinny and tall women in large floppy hats, waving fans and the like. Churches filled with pews, glass windows, and the charismatic shouts of the congregations. And the podium, the preacher, and the pulpit would, of course, be there, too. This is my experience after all, shouldn’t I channel it, together with other kinds of iconographies, in order to make new spaces for imagining and creating transnational dialogue across the African diaspora?
I should. But the first step, I realized, is to do what maybe I could have done first: ground myself in the rich, historial framework of African-American art. Contextualize myself, and thus, perhaps making my art– which is transnational, conceptual, and imaginative art– more accessible to my communities. I want to, more tangibly, manifest a body of work which seeks to create and facilitate dialogue between two great nations in one single canvas. I think traditionally, what’s been done, is that African-American artists do the profound work of opening a unidirectional channel which interprets and re-imagines ‘Africa’– masks, full figured women in African garb, often carrying babies on their backs, and the like. . . but where has one person allowed the two to dialogue, rather than one simply depicting the other?
I’m consciously going back to my roots. I actively want to unpack the narratives of African-American art. But in hindsight, I must admit that African-American art has been there all along, but it has lurking in the level of my subconscious. It has lined every single wall of momma’s (and nana’s) house growing up. From my youth, I can recall specifically African-American art depicting a specifically African-American experience: hot combs on the stove, a young kappa boy and a young aka girl running through an open field, grandmothers straightening young girls’ heads of natural hair, folks playing jazz, the charisma of the Black church, Sunday afternoons at grandma’s house, and more. This genre of art was a part of the visual propaganda of positive Black imagery that filled my mind as a child. One prominent example that comes to mind is Varnette P. Honeywood’s commissioned art on the Cosby’s, 227, Amen, a Different World, and others. (Remember the episode of the Cosby’s where Mrs. Huxtable buys back that famous Black painting?)
Consciously grounding myself in the artistic tradition of African-Americans will be exciting and will prove necessary for the future development of my work, as part of the reason I paint is to cast unity, where there seems to be none, & to create spaces for transnational dialogue. Again, as you can read in the aesthetics section of my blog, I am an artist who does not arbitrarily create. I am an artist who does not believe in art for art’s sake. Art is living, breathing, moving, alive– and we must utilize it and make it instrumental as much as possible.
I was reading one of W.E.B. DuBois’ works a couple of weeks ago- Criteria of Negro Art. A very interesting and provocative work it is, indeed. In it, he demands that art should not only embody Beauty, but on the way to achieving Beauty should instrumentalize Truth (“not for the sake of truth, not as a scientist seeking truth, but as one upon whom Truth eternally thrusts itself as the highest handmaiden of imagination, as the one great vehicle of universal understanding”) and also of Goodness ( “goodness in all aspects of justice, honor and right”). He also puts forward his normative conception of art saying that all art is (and for the oppressed coloreds of America at the time, necessarily so) propaganda:
“Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.”
I digress. The point I mean to make and to drive home, is that art, for me, is instrumental; it’s a means to an end rather than an end in itself- always. Even the most unsuspecting abstract painting of mine often takes on deep meaning that is almost always meant to encourage, inspire, & ignite revolt, change, dialogue, & action. As such, this new body of work I hope to create which will attempt to bridge the gap between the African diaspora in North America and the nation of Ethiopia, is deeply rooted in this DuBoisian view of art.
I’ll conclude this post with a few images I really enjoy from the African-American art tradition:
Varnette P. Honeywood
Varnette P. Honeywood