African American Artists, Part One

CONTEMPORARY AFRICAN AMERICAN ART

Part One

The story of contemporary African American art must begin with the post-war culture and the emerging Civil Rights movement of the late fifties. By that time, Blacks were divided into two cultures—the culture of the South where segregation had not eased its iron grip and the more open culture beyond the South, and the pockets of African American life in large cities where they lived as a segregated society but had all their rights as citizens. That said, everywhere African Americans were denied economic and educational opportunities, either by law or by custom. Economic downturns always impact marginal communities the most and the Great Depression halted the gains of the early twentieth century for African Americans. However, the Second World War opened unexpected doors for new jobs, new opportunities and stimulated a new desire to obtain equality.

African American men and women contributed to the war effort but were still treated like second class citizens. After the Second World War, maintaining racist structures and denying a substantial portion of the population equal rights became untenable. By the mid-fifties, African-Americans began a non-violent push-back against segregation, lynching, and violations of voting rights. For ten years, from 1955 to 1968, blacks and whites united to end the shame of inequality in America, and by the end of the Sixties, African-Americans had the legal rights that had so long been denied to them. The next decades would be ones of assimilation into white society, on one hand, and a desire to maintain the unique identity of Black culture and an African heritage on the other hand.

It is important to note that when certain groups of people are deemed “minorities” or the Other, denied economic and social opportunities and shut out from mainstream establishments, any attempt to penetrate the dominant culture is a political act, regardless of content or intent. As was noted in the previous post on African American art, the artists of the Harlem Renaissance were aware that to make art was to assert their humanity. If people of color were accepted as fully human, then they would have to be given their full rights of American citizenship. Even though the content of the art and literature tended to be a neutral presentation of Black culture, the impact of such achievements a mere generation from slavery and sharecropping was the revelation of an extraordinary gifts from an oppressed society.

During the Civil Rights era, the New York and Los Angeles art communities were largely white and, especially in New York, were not political. Art by African Americans was given scant notice but their work was frankly and often scathingly critical of mainstream white indifference to the condition of people of color. By the 1960s, Black culture and African heritage was conveyed through art styles identified as “white” and pointedly appropriated to make an ironic point about inequality. Pop Art, for example, served as a means by which Faith Ringgold played off of the flags of Jasper Johns with her own flags, bleeding flags, wounded flags, signifying an American that was not living up to its ideals. The early works of the New York artist were strong and militant statements about the continuing injustices endured by African-Americans. She painted a number of altered American flags, one consisting of stripes that one could read, with some difficulty, saying, “Die, Nigger, Die.”

Black art power couple, Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett, were shaped by their experiences as a persecuted minority and by the Civil Rights movement. Catlett was better known for her African-inflected sculptor who favored the wood as her medium. White used the exquisite style of Renaissance rendering to convey the lives, history and the souls of African Americans through decades of portraits. Quoted in a 1996 article by Vanessa Cross, White stated,

I use Negro subject matter because Negroes are closest to me. But I am trying to express a universal feeling through them, a meaning for all men… All my life, I’ve been painting a simple painting. This does not mean that I am a man without anger — I’ve had my work in museum’s where I wasn’t allowed to see it. But what I pour into my work is the challenge of how beautiful life can be.

In 1980, Charles White died in Los Angeles, a city that, until World War II, had a very small African Americans, who though the city was paradise. The Los Angeles artists would not have had the same kind of experiences with discrimination as White, for example, but they felt the sting of prejudice. However, the small population of African Americans exploded as workers streamed into the city, taking jobs in the war industries. It was after the Second World War that the Black community began to experience segregation and prejudice in Los Angeles and found themselves isolated in ghettos, such as Watts.

In the 1970s a strong feminist movement in Los Angeles supported the work of women in the African American community. Among the veterans artists was Los Angeles artist, Betye Saar, and her daughters, Allison Saar and Lezley Saar followed in her pioneering footsteps and are important artists today. The elder Saar is typical of many artists in Los Angeles, a city that has a history of object making, rather than painting. Saar is a scavenger, a collector, a bricoleur, gathering elements from Black culture from which she makes installations and assemblages. Her works are Afro-centric, that is, about African American life and history. One of her best known works is The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972). At the dead center of this assemblage is a china cookie jar, shaped like the iconic racist stereotype, the “Mammy” who became famous as the face of pancakes.

As the recent film, The Help (2010), pointed out, African American women were always able to find jobs as maids and servants, employed by whites to clean their houses, cook their food, and to care for their children. These Black women were an important element in the intimacy of the white household, and yet, their employers would not sit next to them on a bus or allow them in the white schools. Saar’s Aunt Jemima, however, has had enough; she has been liberated by the Civil Rights Movement. The “Mammy” cookie jar has a few additions: Aunt Jemima is now toting a shotgun and a pistol. In front of the cookie jar are two pictures, a small painting of a “mammy” with a white child under her arm and a black fist, raised in the Black Power Salute. Suddenly the friendly, grinning servant is revealing her true colors—she is black, proud, and angry.

Betye Saar’s East Coast counterpart, Faith Ringgold, shifted her confrontational tone in the 1980s. Ringgold’s career spanned the gamut of Post-War Black history and her work began focus on her own childhood, which became the inspiration for several books for children, such as the Tar Beach series of the late 1980s. Tar Beach refers to the asphalt rooftops of buildings in Harlem. These rooftops were vacation destinations for the residents of the building, a place that substituted for a back yard. On these hot and sticky surfaces, children could imagine themselves at the beach, the kind with sand and waves. However, as in Los Angeles, Blacks were not welcomed at white beaches.

In a more gentle way, compared to her flags, Ringgold makes the point that exclusion of Blacks from mainstream American life has an impact upon one’s psyche. The plight of Black children is often discussed in African-American literature. At some point, the child realizes that he or she is “black,” not just a child but a “black child,” who will live a life of discrimination. The moment of realization of “difference” or “different” from whites, is a moment of great pain, borne by a very young and innocent person. It is a moment every Black parent dreads. Ringgold, like Betye Saar, was impacted by the Feminist Movement, which gave Black women an extra boost into the art world after the Civil Rights Movement.

Many women began to defiantly make art with materials connected to women, such as fabric. Ringgold began to make quilts, which were autobiographical (she did one on her struggle with her weight) and historical, focusing on Black history. One of her most famous series of quilts was The French Connection. An obvious play on the movie of the same name (about drug trafficking), Ringgold’s “French Connection” is about the traffic in African art. In one of her (folk art) (women’s art) quilts, illustrated in a “folk” style, Ringgold shows Gertrude Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas in their Parisian living room, sitting beneath the African-inspired portrait of Stein by her friend, Pablo Picasso. Using the quilting format allows Ringgold to comment upon race and gender, the oppression of women and the oppression of Blacks who are forced to express themselves through rejected art forms: “craft” and “folk art.”

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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