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With bright colours, radical political songs and portraits of Black people, the Black Arts Movement celebrated Black pride and Black power, defining a new aesthetic.

 

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The Black Arts Movement was an African American-led art movement active from around the mid 1960s through the beginning of the 1970s. It can be considered the “aesthetic and spiritual sister” of the Black power movement. The artists involved contributed to the creation of not only artworks but also cultural institutions that conveyed a message of Black pride while affirming the autonomy of black art. The group was composed by politically motivated visual artists, musicians, writers, dramatists and poets.

History and Motifs of the Movement

The poet and playwright Amiri Baraka is considered the father of the movement. Baraka initiated the idea of “Black Art”, as he wrote in one of his poems: “Let the world be a Black Poem, And Let All Black People Speak This Poem, Silently or LOUD”. In the aftermath of Malcom X’s assassination in 1965, he established the first Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in Harlem, this allowed the concept of Black Art to catalyse a movement, marking its beginnings. The Black Arts movement emerged as a response to the changing political and cultural climate that demanded Black power. In particular, artists were asked to re-think the role that art could play in the African American struggle for freedom. They took charge of the challenge posed by Malcom X during a speech at the Organisation of Afro-America Unity. “We must recapture our heritage and our identity if we are ever to liberate ourselves from the bonds of white supremacy. We must launch a cultural revolution to unbrainwash an entire people”. Black artists and intellectuals created politically engaged works that not only firmly rejected the cultural, political and artistic traditions, but were also a truthful representation of the history and culture of African Americans. Black people took charge of their own cultural representation and production.

 

Barbara Jones-Hogu, I’m Better Than These Motherfuckers, ca. 1970. Courtesy of the artist’s estate

 

 

Pursuing this call was particularly difficult for visual artists. The fine arts had a long history of Western cultural dominance which brought with it a system of codified rules, tools, mediums, and institutions. The challenge was to advance African American culture within this system of expression. Visual artists of the Black Arts Movement were able to reach this goal. They adopted time-honoured mediums such as painting, sculpture and textile design, cultivating a new aesthetic and fundamentally redefining the forms and content of fine art. Their art was not only revolutionary, it also aimed at finding new ways to share a revolutionary message.

Artists returned to the Black community: poets and writers read out loud works and artists painted murals. A striking example is the decision by the New York group Spiral to exhibit their works in the storefront of their studio, offering them to their community instead of giving them to commercial galleries. The Black Arts Movement was radically opposed to the alienation of the artist from their community. As it is possible to read in the Editors’ Introduction of SOS Calling All Black People, artists believed “art as a process of personal and social liberation rather than as a product or artefact to be sold or appreciated in an abstract way”. The creative impetus of the Black Arts Movement was brought by the ongoing social liberation struggle that demanded social and political change. The movement’s art spoke directly to the needs, desires and aspirations of African Americans by radically changing the Western aesthetic.

Before the twentieth century, the representation of African descendants in European and American fine art was limited to few paintings. If present, they were most likely to be depicted as slaves, servants or peasants, subordinates to rich and powerful white people. On the other hand, popular art, like film, magazines or television, perpetuated negative racist stereotypes of African Americans that had a profound and harmful effect and still have implications on today society. The numerous and valuable artistic contributions by African Americans were unrecognised due to systemic racism. During what was described as Harlem Renaissance, in the period between 1910 to the mid-1930s, Black artists, especially, writers, started to create their own narrative and gain popularity. Yet, founded primarily by white philanthropists, their themes lacked many of the political stances that instead defined the Black Arts Movement.

Black Aesthetic

What really characterised the Black Arts Movement was the definition of a “black aesthetic”. By speaking directly to the black experience, the art produced within the movement proposed the creation of a new symbolism, iconology and critique, taking distance from the Western aesthetic. Artists, scholars and critics reappropriated the positive meaning and sense of Black Art. They did not only break free from the Western tradition and style; but they also gave a truthful and honourable representation of African Americans. The development of a black aesthetic was crucial for the development of an African American identity. The early works were murals, usually colourful, with many symbolic imagery and portraying members of the black community.

A first and famous example is the mural painting “Wall of Respect”.

 

 

Visual Arts Workshop, The Wall of Respect, 1967. Photo by Robert A. Sengstacke

 

“Wall of Respect” was painted in 1967 by the Visual Arts Workshop of the Organisation of Black American Culture. It depicted many portraits of heroes and heroines of African American history, including the images of Aretha Franklin, Malcom X, Muhammad Ali to name few. The mural was the result of the collective and collaborative effort of numerous artists. The subjects represented as well as the fact that it was a mural accessible to the everyone made it a source of inspiration and pride, sparking the diffusion of large open-air neighbourhood murals all over the United States. The Wall of Respect was an highly visible celebration of black power and pride, it empowered communities to narrate themselves, their histories, eliciting reciprocal identification and community-building. It is also considered as a revolutionary artwork that represented black liberation.

Five key artworks of the Black Arts Movement

Here are five artworks that encapsulate well the ideas and the aesthetics of the Black Arts Movement.

1. Dindga McCannon, “Revolutionary Sister”, 1971

Dindga McCannon is an African American self-taught artist, born and raised in Harlem. Her most famous artwork is “Revolutionary Sister” (1971). It was inspired by her frustration with the limited roles for women in society. McCannon created a powerful female warrior with a headpiece made by recycled mini flag poles. The figure resembles the Statue of Liberty, a symbol of freedom and opportunity for many, but surely not for African Americans. The colours of the painting are very intense and bright, the artist uses mainly three colours, each with a particular meaning: red – for the blood that the African American shed; green – for her Motherland, Africa; and black – for the Black people. The figure has a bandolier bullet belt, a powerful symbol of political resistance in the years of the Civil Rights Movement.

 

 

Dindga McCannon, Revolutionary Sister, 1971. Courtesy of artist's estate

 

2. Jae Jarrell, “Urban Wall Suit”, 1969

Jae Jarrell is a sculptor, painter and fashion designer. She is best know for her suits and vests.  The “Urban Wall Suit” is a multicoloured suit inspired by graffiti and concert posters that filled the walls of the streets of Chicago. Jarrell used recycled pieces and scraps of fabric of different colours and patterns to realise a patchwork that resembles bricks. The suit is a powerful symbol of the public and community voice, a walking sign. All over the suit, images and texts are carefully incorporated, they convey messages such as “Vote Democrat”, “Black Princess” or “Miss Attitude”. The artwork is a statement of Black pride, power and respect for African American communities.

 

Jae Jarrell, Urban Wall Suit,1969. Courtesy of the Artist’s Estate. Photo: Brooklyn Museum

 

3. Wadsworth A. Jarrell, “Revolutionary (Angela Davis)”, 1971

Revolutionary (Angela Davis)” is a painting by Wadsworth Jarrell, spouse of Jae Jarrell. With this painting, the artist wanted to celebrate the radical activist and intellectual Angela Y. Davis, one of the most important figures in the fight for racial, gender, and economic justice in the United States. The figure of Angela Davis is created using shapes and words that are taken from her inspiring speeches as well as quotes of Black Power slogans. The use of vibrant colours and the energetic lines convey well the power of Davis’ activism. The activist is depicted wearing a replica of the “Revolutionary Suit”– a suit designed by Jae Jarrell, which include a bandolier belt: a symbol of the armed resistance to Black oppression. The paintings encapsulates well the Black Arts Movement’s aesthetic: positive role models, bright and intense colours and the incorporation of text.

 

 

Wadsworth A. Jarrell, Revolutionary (Angela Davis), 1971. Courtesy of artist's estate

 

4. Jeff Donaldson, “Victory in the Valley of Eshu”, 1971

Jeff Donaldson painted “Victory in the Valley of Eshu” in 1971. In the painting, he reflects on his ancestral identity, drawing on the religion and visual imagery of the Nigerian Yoruba people. He depicts his father holding a ritual wand, associated with Sango, the Yoruba thunder deity as well as his mother holding a six-pointed star, which symbolises the deity of fate, Eshu. Each point of the star suggests a potential path that Donaldson could face in the future as well as a potential path for the African American community as a whole. His mother and father are watching over this crossroad, guiding him. The painting combines a rhythmic compositions and bright colours with a search of a synthesis between African and African American imagery to foster a recognition of a shared heritage and empower community spirit and engagement.

 

 

Jeff Donaldson, Victory in the Valley of Eshu, 1971. Courtesy of the artist’s estate

 

5. Barbara Jones-Hogu, “Relate to Your Heritage”, 1971

The last artwork also proposes a reflection about heritage and ancestral identity. It is a colour screenprint titled “Relate to Your Heritage” and painted by Barbara Jones-Hogu. The artist depicted six women with their natural hair or with their hair wrapped in fabric, surrounded by words. The artwork is a celebration of Black culture, Black identity and African heritage. Some figures have patterns and design painted on their faces, in particular, an ankh is painted on the forehead of one woman on the right side. Ankh is a a symbol of life in ancient Egypt, which was adopted by the Black Power Movement as a sign of connection with the ancestors in Africa. The same symbol could also be found in the dress of the mother in Jeff Donaldson’s print. The reminders to Black aesthetic are clear: positive and proud representation of Black people, bright colours, inclusion of words, and also a connection to Black heritage.

 

Barbara Jones-Hogu, Relate to Your Heritage, 1971. Courtesy Lusenhop Fine Art

 

Black Art (Under) Representation in the Art Market

The art market was and still is overwhelming white. Auctions houses, galleries and collectors are slowing becoming more inclusive, especially after the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Cultural institutions and museum are also incorporating the works of Black artists, while discussing the effects and implications of inequalities and colonialism. The art scene will be always incomplete without black art and black culture: black artists significantly enrich the art world. In the last years, there was an increasing demand for Black art paintings that resulted in a rise in prices. For example, the paintings of Kerry James Marshall, who is one of the top-rated living Black American artist, used to sell between $50,000 and $100,000 in 2006/2007. Now, one of those same pieces is sold for over $1 million. His painting “Past Times” (1997) was sold in 2018 sold $21.1 million. Even if there are some signs of improvement, the path to reach equal representation in the art market is definitively still long.

 

Kerry James Marshall, Past Times, 1997. Courtesy of Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, McCormick Place Art Collection.

 

Cover image: Wadsworth Aikens Jarrel, Three Queens, 1971. Courtesy Detroit Institute of Arts.

Written by Francesca Allievi

 

Stay Tuned to Kooness magazine for more exciting news from the art world.

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