Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 27, 2015
David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds. The Image of the Black in Western Art Volume V: The Twentieth Century, Part 1: The Impact of Africa.. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 2014. 320 pp.; 195 color ills.; 25 b/w ills. Cloth $95.00 (9780674052673)
David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds. The Image of the Black in Western Art Volume V: The Twentieth Century, Part 2: The Rise of Black Artists.. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 2014. 368 pp.; 224 color ills. Cloth $95.00 (9780674052697)

Originally conceived in 1960 by French U.S.-based philanthropists Dominique and John de Menil, The Image of the Black in Western Art was “prompted” by what one of the project’s patrons, Dominique de Menil, described as “an intolerable situation: segregation as it still existed in spite of having been outlawed by the Supreme Court in 1954” (Dominique de Menil, “Acknowledgements and Perspectives,” The Image of the Black in Western Art. Volume 1: From the Pharaohs to the Fall of the Roman Empire, Fribourg, Switzerland: Office Du Livre, 1976, ix). Within the volatile social and racial politics of the 1960s and 1970s, a wealth of other educational material about African American history would also emerge, seeking to provide more of the formerly hidden history of black people in America. Spoken-word records such as Adventures in Negro History, produced by Pepsi Cola in 1966; Afro-American History: In Song and Story, a four-LP box set, produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1969; and The Dialect of the Black American, another LP, published by the utility company Western Electric in 1970 illustrate the extent to which philanthropy extended into corporate America, and was not only the preserve of individuals such as the de Menils.

However, what distinguishes The Image of the Black in Western Art from other philanthropic initiatives of the time is that while very much a response to a racially fractious society, the de Menils’ ambitious and altruistic project offered a different kind of introspection that was predicated on the visual. Although during the early part of the twentieth century African American artists would receive support from a number of primarily white philanthropists and patrons, including William E. Harmon, Nancy Cunard, and Carl Van Vechten, what also distinguishes The Image of the Black in Western Art is that it included, but also looked beyond, U.S. artists. It would become a monumental research and publishing project involving an international coterie of white scholars who attempted to provide the most comprehensive history of the ways in which black people had been represented in Western art. Such was the scale of the research that it would be sixteen years before volume1, titled From the Pharaohs to the Fall of the Roman Empire, was published in 1976, and a further twenty-nine years from the origin of the project before volume 4, From the American Revolution to World War I, was published 1989.

This provides a backdrop and gives some rationale as to why, under the auspices of Harvard University and its Hutchins Center for African and African American Research (formerly the W. E. B Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research), volumes of The Image of the Black in Western Art have over the past few years been reprinted and expanded. Volume 3, never previously published, has also been completed. Yet most significant is the production of an entirely new volume. The Image of the Black in Western Art: The Twentieth Century, Volume V is divided into two parts, Part 1: The Impact of Africa and Part 2: The Rise of Black Artists. For a number of reasons this two-part volume represents a substantial undertaking and achievement. It comprises twenty newly commissioned essays by sixteen curators, anthropologists, art historians, and cultural theorists. Furthermore, while the original volumes covered historical periods prior to and after the abolition of slavery in the United States and Europe, they did not venture far into the twentieth century. Therefore, the subsequent “scramble for Africa” and postcolonial period become rich timeframes to mine and examine attitudes toward “race” and representation of the black subject in the modern and postmodern world—substantial areas not previously attended to in earlier The Image of the Black in Western Art publications.

Volume 5 is bookended by essays on anthropology, photography, and contemporary art in an age of globalization, providing something of a chronological narrative. However, as one of the series’s general editor, David Bindman, explains, much of part 1 of volume 5 is “not sequential but coterminous” (part 1, 3–4). This is indeed one of the defining characteristics of the first two chapters. The evolution and construction of the “black subject” during the early twentieth century in the United States and Europe are variously examined through ten essays dealing with photography, advertising, high art, and popular culture. In presenting these essays, which cover roughly the same period, the first part of volume 5 offers a particularly nuanced reading of history and culture.

Deborah Willis’s essay, “Counteracting the Stereotype: Photography in the Nineteenth Century,” reconsiders how “racial identity was presented in photography in America and Europe at a time when debates about black people were the focus of scientific, aesthetic, and popular discussions” (part 1, 12). Central to Willis’s study is the late nineteenth-century anthropological photography of Joseph T. Zealy, produced at the behest of none other than Harvard University natural scientist and zoologist, Louis Agassiz. In these images, enslaved and free black women and men appear eerily sharp and deadpan. The compositions in these photographs are brutal, “based on the full-frontal nude poses revealing the penises of the men and the breasts of the women” (part 1, 13). Willis contends that such photography was not intended to represent individuals but instead to classify and deem “the black body as inferior and at the same time desirable” (ibid.). Interestingly, much of the early part of this volume focuses on white depictions of black subjects. However, Willis introduces the work of contemporary photographer Carrie Mae Weems whose series From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, produced in the 1990s, appropriates and (re)presents Zealy’s images by using duotones overlaid with printed text to challenge these images’ pseudo-scientific pretensions. Willis’s reference to Weems’s photo-text works also makes sense in the wider context of the volume setting down a marker for the ways in which challenging heinous depictions and myths related to the black subject and propagated in photography would become central concerns for many other contemporary black photographers. While work such as Weems’s would issue a new set of dilemmas around appropriation and representation of the “black” subject, as Bindman notes in his introduction, it is intended “to counteract and provide alternatives to the overwhelming presence in all Western countries of demeaning images of black people” (part 1, 5).

The legacy of anthropological photography is reexamined and considered as “a dynamic past in the present” (part 1, 62) by Elizabeth Edwards. She charts how during the early twentieth century changing attitudes and approaches to anthropology itself brought with them a shift in the ways photography was used. While the dehumanizing mode of anthropological photography by the likes of Zealy “lingered, overlapped and were reformulated within later photography” (part 1, 47), for Edwards there was nevertheless the introduction of an expanded field of practices worthy of reconsideration, as indicated by her chapter’s subtitles: from the development of “Ethnographic Naturalism,” which involved “closely observed and experienced cultural practices of people” (part 1, 49–50), to “Neo–Exotics: Ethnographic Picturesque and Surrealist Fantasies.” For Edwards these shifts in the use of photography warrant a more nuanced reading of anthropology vis-à-vis the African subject. Images such as Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard’s Mekana, son of elite local man, Ongosi, and Evans-Pritchard’s Zande servant (1927–30) is one of several examples of the ways in which individuals could on occasion be portrayed with dignity and even a certain reverence. As Edwards opines, “These photographs are not types but are of named individuals who influenced the making of their own images” (part 1, 55).

In section 2, “Europe and the Construction of the ‘Primitive,’” depictions of blackness in the early twentieth century are viewed through the confluence of high art and popular culture. Readers are also frequently reminded that influences on representations of the black subject in Europe need to be understood as directly related to the rise of European colonial rule over nearly all of the African continent which followed the Berlin Conference (1884–85) and reached its zenith during the early twentieth century. For instance, Petrine Archer notes how “the Parisian avant-garde first encountered Africa and black culture in their admiration for African sculptures that ended up in the hands of dealers and museums as a result of colonial trade and pillaging” (part 1, 137). This forms part of the backdrop that would come to shape the ways in which white European artists would illustrate the black subject in their art.

Suzanne Preston Blier considers the impact this period had on Pablo Picasso’s art. The inspiration for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), which arguably marked the inception of Cubism, is attributed not only to African sculpture but also to Leo Frobenius’s illustrations published in his 1898 volume African Masks and Secret Societies (Die Masken und Geheimbünde Afrikas) and Carl Heinrich’s exotic anthropological photographs of women from the early twentieth century. Blier observes, “For Picasso and some in his circle, Africa (and Africans) represented a combination of creativity, curiosity, social concern, sexual provocation, philosophical interest, and extended family ties” (part 1, 77). Blier also provides a fascinating account of paintings produced in response to Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863), such as Picasso’s Parody of Olympia (1901) and Félix Valloton’s La Blanche et la Noire (1913), which in different ways elevate the black subject.

Essays by Christian Weikop and Esther Schreuder take the reader beyond Paris and consider the wider impact Africa would have on art produced in Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands in the early twentieth century. From German Expressionism and Dada to political propaganda and Dutch figurative painting, readers are given in-depth accounts of how the portrayal of the black subject oscillated between what Weikop describes as “Afrophilia” and “Afrophobia.”

The final, third section of part 1, “Beyond Europe: The Caribbean and Latin America,” shifts from a history of primarily white depictions of the black subject to images of black people by black people. This concluding chapter offers a fitting segue into part 2.

The original volumes of The Image of the Black in Western Art gave only cursory attention to the representation of the black subject by black artists. With the benefit of hindsight, it is perhaps too easy to see this as a substantial shortcoming of the de Menils’ project, which emerged during the 1960s, at precisely the time when black political and cultural expression was at its most visible, independent, and potent because of the battle for civil rights and postcolonial independence. Perhaps even more tellingly, the original volumes of The Image of the Black in Western Art terminated their study in the early twentieth century, at precisely the point in which African American artists were an emergent artistic force. Black people were more than just “images” in Western art, but were also becoming active contributors to the canon.

Part 2, The Rise of Black Artists, is divided into three parts and contrasts notably from part 1 in its more chronological approach to narrating the emergence of black visual expression. The first two sections include five essays focused primarily on the United States. “African American Art and Identity” and “Identity Politics and the Response to Modernism” offer insightful and informative explorations on a broad range of topics. Spanning from what Richard J. Powell describes as the emergence of “the New Negro,” a term which in 1920s America “eventually came to express a mood or spirit of progressivism” (part 2, 61) to what Adrienne L. Childs calls in her essay, “Activism and the Shaping of Black Identities (1964–1988),” the “racially divisive American political climate of the 1960s civil rights era” (part 2, 131), it seems evident that a certain cultural optimism, epitomized by the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, evaporated by the second part of the twentieth century. However, this did not negate so much as fuel the production of work centered on the depiction and (re)presentation of the black subject. As Childs attests: “The politics of art, social activism, and black identity is complex indeed. Defining shared aspects of blackness was one of the most vexing endeavors of the twentieth century and presented a minefield of problematic affinities and essentialist constructs of identity” (part 2, 177).

Essays by Willis and Kobena Mercer form the last section of the book, titled “Worldwide Developments.” Both authors perform admirable feats in covering an enormous ground and in weaving narratives concerned with an array of practices spanning photography, painting, sculpture, installation, and film. Willis’s third contribution to volume 5, “Contemporary Photography: [Re]presenting Art History,” explores a disparate range of photographic practices from Lorna Simpson’s image-text work of the 1990s to Luis Gispert’s more recent portraiture exploring fashion and consumerism. Mercer’s “New Practices, New Identities: Hybridity and Globalization” offers a substantial overview, dating from the 1980s to the present day, of the changing nature of representations of blackness in contemporary art. For Mercer, “The black image in Western art was opened to transformation as a result of the doubleness that was introduced by numerous dialogical perspectives, which laid out cross-cultural translations extending back to the boundless past and forward into the endless future” (part 2, 300).

Where the essays in part 1 are coterminous and offer a sense of multiple and even contested perspectives, part 2’s more chronological approach to history, although invaluable, relinquishes the dynamic interplay between contributors’ essays. Perhaps more significant is the distinct treatment of art and artists in both books. Where the social and cultural conditions that produced white European depictions of the black subject in photography, art, and popular culture are forensically examined in part 1, in the second part Europe and Africa are subsumed within a global view. On the one hand, Mercer offers an opportunity to consider, within an international discourse, what he calls “art’s transformative agency in the macrocosmic changes that define the era” (part 2, 227). He cites artists such as Sonia Boyce, Robert Mapplethorpe, Kerry James Marshall, Fred Wilson, Yinka Shonibare, Seydou Keita, and Marlene Dumas as representing a divergent set of practices. On the other hand, because of the absence of more specific narratives, histories of practice are viewed from only one perspective and almost flattened out. In his introduction to volume 5, Bindman notes: “The effect of Africans and African art on the work of European artists came into its own broadly in the same period that artists of African descent began to confront the practical and intellectual difficulties of being an artist of ambition in a white-dominated world. Both narratives are determined by different countries’ particular inheritance of slavery” (part 2, 4). A case in point is the particularities of black artistic practice in Britain, from the 1970s and 1980s, which are largely omitted from this book. Works by artists such as Denzil Forrester, Claudette Johnson, Tam Joseph, Mowbray Odonkor, and Eugene Palmer could have perhaps offered more of a counterpoint to Mercer’s “macrocosmic” narrative. How might Rasheed Araeen’s For Oluwale (1971–73), a work that documents the racist murder by police of a Nigerian man in Leeds, England, or Forrester’s social commentary painting Domino Hunters (1985) inform an understanding of the legacies of black image production? Equally, greater consideration of where contemporary African artists “fit” within the discourse on “the rise of black artists” would also seem to be a logical inclusion. A survey such as The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume V is, by its nature, liable to be scrutinized in terms of not only what it includes but also what it excludes. While by no means the definitive article, it provides plenty to ponder.

Richard Hylton
PhD candidate, Department of Visual Cultures, Goldsmiths College, London