Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 15, 2014
Amy M. Mooney American Art in Dialogue with Africa and its Diaspora
Organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in partnership with the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art and the National Museum of African American History
October 4–5, 2013

In the fall of 2013, scholars, artists, collectors, and art aficionados gathered in Washington, DC, for a two-day symposium to consider the role of Africa and its diaspora in the development of art in the United States (available as a webcast). Welcomed by Elizabeth Broun of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Johnnetta Cole of the National Museum of African Art, the event consisted of two days of panels interspersed with comments from respondents and complemented by the insightful opening remarks of the eminent art historian David Driskell. In short, the seventeen distinct papers reflected the breadth and depth of recent scholarship on the complex practices and experiences that constitute the African diaspora. Sponsored by the Terra Foundation for American Art, the symposium demonstrated the foundation’s increased awareness of the pressing need to further examine the definition of “American” art by looking beyond its European connections. Further, the careful curating of the program evinced a commitment to diversity in every aspect—from the inclusion of senior scholars as well as graduate students to the global scope of the nationality of the presenters and their subjects. It was a far cry from the 2009 symposium organized by the Terra Foundation for American Art that posed provocative questions about American modernism only to myopically consider it as a phenomenon exclusive experienced by Euro-American artists and understood by Euro-American scholars. Yet, as evidenced by many of the provocative topics addressed, there is still much to be learned and understood in order to meet the objective of a more global and consciously decentered art history.

Organized around relatively traditional art-historical themes such as nineteenth-century portraiture and the interplay between primitivism and modernism, the program did not hint at the dynamic thinking that informed many of the papers. Though no one scholar examined the multiple meanings of the term “diaspora,” each participant contributed to its understanding as a topic that has deeply impacted the practice and interpretation of visual art and culture. The influence of Kobena Mercer’s radical series, Annotating Art’s Histories, figured prominently, as many scholars explored “the critical role of estrangement and displacement” and the possibilities presented by “counter-appropriation” (Kobena Mercer, “Introduction,” in Exiles, Diasporas, and Strangers, ed., Kobena Mercer, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008, 7). Scholars also drew from Stephanie Smallwood’s influential text, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora, using it to reveal how the alienating process of transforming persons into commodities continues to shape artistic production and reception (Stephanie E. Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007; for an insightful review, see Sharla Fett, “Review of Smallwood, Stephanie E., Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora,” H-Atlantic, H-Net Reviews [October, 2007]: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=13735; accessed May 16, 2014).

It may be useful, however, to look at Steven Nelson’s groundbreaking article “Diaspora: Multiple Practices, Multiple World Views” to further contextualize the myriad artists and ideas addressed during the two-day symposium. Nelson notes that diaspora studies requires scholars to stretch beyond extant histories, employing methodologies and considering “links that transverse national boundaries, either by the invocation of memories (real or imagined) of places of origin (i.e. ‘Mother Africa’) and/or political, cultural, and intellectual links among members of diasporic groups” (Steven Nelson, “Diaspora: Multiple Practices, Multiple World Views,” in A Companion to Contemporary Art Since 1945, ed., Amelia Jones, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006, 298). His emphasis on the importance of constructing a multivalent worldview and the reminder that “to think about diaspora also is to think about histories of assimilation, acculturation, and hybridity” offers a critical framework for considering the symposium (297). Indeed, though approached through a wide array of concerns ranging from the influence of dancer Féral Benga to the sketchbooks of Cy Twombly, assimilation, acculturation, and hybridity emerged as main themes for the presentations.

Though we often think about the experience of assimilation as a painful and forced migration resulting in the obliteration of one’s original cultural practices, it can also refer to a strategic ability to adapt the exterior signs of belonging. Shawn Michelle Smith elucidated how daguerreotypist Augustus Washington worked with his subjects to conflate personal and state agency, enabling African Americans to become African citizens. Her close reads of new senators formally attired and seated with the evidence of legislative work show how critical mimicry can be employed to unify the body politic. Smith argued that Washington’s images of political leaders from the 1850s visualized the self-possession and consciousness of African American subjectivity that was denied in the United States, yet irrefutably interiorized and presented by those who sought to become new citizens of Liberia.

Similarly, Anne Lafont revealed the ways in which the adoption of an aesthetic lens could signal social and political change. Looking to Portrait of Yarrow Mamount (1819), Lafont argued that painter Charles Wilson Peale borrowed the aesthetics of Orientalism as a means of recognizing his black subject’s “interior alterity.” Though she carefully traced various literary exchanges and the influence of the French painters of the Convent des Capucines, her argument ignored the fact that occidental fantasy rarely endeavored to establish mutual recognition between subject and viewer. Rather, it maintains and objectifies difference. Contrary to her stated intention, Lafont reified Peale’s representation of Mamount’s personhood as something to be considered by others, but not actually assimilated by the subject.

In contrast, Camara Holloway considered the assimilation of an Orientalist gaze as a means of referencing the multiple layers of modern subjectivity as evidenced in the work of photographer F. Holland Day. Holloway argued that from his privileged position as a white male, Day’s juxtaposition of his exterior self with a portrait of his black male model certainly demonstrated his virtuosic photographic skill as well as the objectification and oppression usually associated with his Nubian series. Yet she also noted that for Day the black nude was a representation of his interior self and that his desire to assimilate blackness was a means of negotiating the constitutive parts of his identity, including race, homosexuality, and modernity.

Other sessions explored the impact of primitivism, investigating the ways that artists experienced African culture and negotiated the tropes that dominated popular media. For some, the adoption of cultural patterns and aesthetics provided a sort of cosmopolitan exploration of what it means to be modern; for others, such borrowings perpetuated racism and the myths of inferiority employed to justify the atrocities of slavery.

Mia Bagneris began her investigation of African tropes in the work of painter Palmer Hayden by referencing poet Countee Cullen’s famous question, “What is African to me?” Unlike Cullen, however, Hayden’s engagement with African subjects was limited to colonialist and artificial constructs, much like those seen in the “voodoo” paintings of Archibald Motley. Following the recent scholarship on Hayden, Bagneris read the painter’s well-known still life Fétiche et Fleur (1926) as a subtle jab at Harlem Renaissance philosopher Alain Locke’s academic pretensions, as if an ancestral connection to Africa could be represented by the mere possession and display of artifacts. Bagneris underscored the ways that Hayden was influenced by the 1932 Exposition Coloniale Internationale, yet her assertion that the artist intended his caricatures of African dancers as a critique warrants further substantiation.

Chika Okeke-Agulu offered new insights on the impact of Jacob Lawrence’s visit to Nigeria in 1962 and 1964. Moved by the colors and planes of the Osogbo market, among other experiences, Lawrence’s works gained a new compositional complexity and intense expansion of palette. His discussion of the influence of the Mbari Artists and Writers Club in Ibadan and Mbari-Mbayo Club in Osogbo raised important questions about the cross-cultural potential of these encounters. Audience members were keen to learn if Lawrence had a similar impact on the contemporary artists he encountered? Okeke-Agulu promised further research, echoing Ikem Stanley Okoye’s call for the necessity for scholars of American art to expand their engagement with African art studies.

Given that many of the papers considered the syncretic efforts of artists and audiences to retain and build upon memory as a way of making sense of globalization, the concept of a fluid hybridity emerged as a common thread. For many, the ability to select, graft, and generate new forms is central to the diaspora and best represents the conscious multiplicity of transnationalism. Yet, as much as we recognize the possibility of transnationalism, many scholars rightly expressed concern that this term has the potential to perpetuate a disturbing essentialization and dehistorcized outlook that reifies national boundaries. As counterbalance, several scholars reexamined art’s history, calling out the ways in which the politics of identity effect interpretation.

Jeffery Stewart troubled the understanding of syncretism or creolization as a sort of celebratory and free-floating borrowing of African motifs as posited by scholars such as Robert Ferris Thompson. Instead, Stewart compared works by Winold Reiss and Romare Bearden, arguing that the identity of the borrower, as well as the layered signification of the form and its subsequent juxtaposition, deeply impacts an understanding of the work. Closely reading works by Reiss such as Hot Chocolates (1929), Stewart acknowledged that the artist’s white privilege allowed him the freedom to visualize urban space as performative, yet his own experience as an exile influenced his awareness of modern oppression and appreciation of creative black subjectivity. Contrasting this with Bearden’s collages from the 1960s, Stewart noted a distinct difference in the grounding of the figures, arguing that the stasis and shifts in scale that mark Bearden’s juxtapositions communicate the weight of dislocation, ruptures, and reconstitutions experienced through slavery. For Stewart, Bearden in particular moved from representing a transnational synthesis of different cultures to addressing a more specific trans-African condition of the experience of exile and forced relation with other cultures—what Smallwood calls “anomalous intimacies.” Such an interpretation broadens an awareness of what constitutes a collective identity, recognizing the diversity inherent within the visualization of black modern subjectivity.

Like Stewart, Krista Thompson provided new interpretations, interrogating and offering possible corrections to art history’s myopia toward the work of conceptual artist Tom Lloyd. Drawing from the framing strategies employed by performance artist Lorraine O’Grady, Thompson proposed a radically fictitious imagining of the impact of Lloyd’s work and activism. Initially, her presentation detailed the artist’s innovative use of light as a creative medium, fabricating international support and recognition. Thompson imagined “the unrecoverable past,” replete with artist’s renderings of large-scale installations, not only accomplishing the important work of reclamation, but also increasing critical awareness of the problematic rationale for such historical lacunae. Her “reveal” that Lloyd in fact was not included in the Museum of Modern Art’s groundbreaking 1972 exhibition Lights and Movement and was not invited to create work for the facade of the National Gallery in Edinburgh underscores the fact that though his conceptual methods were on par with peers such as Dan Flavin and Robert Smithson, Lloyd’s contributions did not become part of the canon of American art. Rather, reception of his work was mitigated by the charged racial politics of the 1960s and 1970s, which established long-lasting constraints on what subject matter and which aesthetics could be employed by black artists. As Thompson noted, during this period black art was expected to manifest the political nature of the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement and embody representational and African aesthetics. In contrast, Lloyd’s abstract, non-objective light sculptures were viewed as apolitical and dismissed. Though Thompson launched the symposium with her thoughtful query of how being perceived as an artist of the African diaspora effects visibility, in effect it also served as a provocative coda.

Overall, the symposium presented new research and critical methodologies that could alter and expand American art history if it shifts from seeing the African diaspora as an external circumstance and comes to embrace it as an ongoing internalization. To that end, and recalling Stuart Hall’s prescient statement that “identity embeds itself not in the past, but rather in the present and future,” we are reminded that by reexamining the past we can better imagine the future, seeking a more inclusive, conscious, and engaging practice (Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” in Identity, Community, Culture, Difference, ed., Jonathan Rutherford, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990, 223). Further, keeping in mind the sponsorship of the Terra Foundation for American Art, the symposium provided a cross-cultural dialogue on American art, highlighting the necessity of such opportunities to engage and explore the art of the African diaspora.

Amy M. Mooney
Associate Professor, Art and Design Department, Columbia College, Chicago

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