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Numerous books have been written about William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. While he is revered for his contributions as a sociologist, historian, and civil rights activist, Du Bois was also a poet, playwright, and novelist, and believed very deeply in the social and political potency of art. Art historians have noted the great influence this pioneering figure had on the careers of early twentieth-century artists. He encouraged the sculptors Meta Warrick Fuller and Edmonia Lewis, as well as the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, to create art that emphasized black subject matter. In his essay “Criteria of Negro Art,” Du Bois formulated what can be considered a manifesto of sorts for black art in which he addressed a number of issues relevant to the period of the New Negro Movement. Speaking to the role of the black artist, he asserted that “it is the bounden duty of black America to begin this great work of the creation of beauty, of the preservation of beauty, of the realization of beauty, and we must use in this work all the methods that men have used before. And what have been the tools of the artist in times gone by? First of all, he has used the 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 handmaid of imagination, as the one great vehicle of universal understanding” (W. E. B. DuBois, “Criteria of Negro Art,” Crisis 32 (1926): 292). While much has been written about Du Bois’s active role in African American art and culture in the first half of the twentieth century, there has yet to be an exploration of his impact on contemporary artists. That is, until now. Loretta Yarlow, the director of the University Museum of Contemporary Art at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, curated the exhibition Du Bois In Our Time and edited its accompanying catalogue. The ten artists proved to be an impressive lineup that included well-known figures such as Mickalene Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, Radcliffe Bailey, and Julie Mehretu.
The University of Massachusetts, Amherst, was an apt location for the exhibition since it is in proximity to Du Bois’s birthplace, Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Along with the W. E. B. Du Bois Memorial Centre for Pan-African Culture in Accra, Ghana (Du Bois’s home at the end of his life), it is also where his literary estate is housed. Yarlow was very intent on the exhibition opening in the year 2013, as it marked the fiftieth anniversary of Du Bois’s death as well as the March on Washington. Also of great significance is the fact that the opening coincided with the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Given the spirit of interdisciplinary collaboration in the genesis of the exhibition, Yarlow extended this to her selection of authors for the accompanying catalogue. However, none of the essays were written by an art historian. While I understand the importance of including Du Bois experts who can assist the reader in considering the intersectionalities of his work and the art in the exhibition, it is still imperative for the reader to situate the art within a sociopolitical and historical context.
In a succinct introductory essay, Yarlow explained that the exhibition emerged out of participation in a workshop that aimed to connect the Du Bois Center and Archives at Amherst to the Du Bois Heritage Sites in Great Barrington, along with the community at large. Recognizing the pivotal ways in which the visual arts could serve in forging critical engagement and thus a sense of community, Yarlow conceptualized an exhibition in which a group of artists would create works of art inspired by documents housed in the physical and digital Du Bois archives at the university. Given Du Bois’s far-reaching legacy, particularly his crucial role in the Pan-African movement, Yarlow also collaborated with curators from West Africa to create a correlating exhibition in Accra, where, as mentioned earlier, Du Bois resided in his final days, having renounced his U.S. citizenship. (Also located there are his burial site and the Du Bois Memorial Centre.) Yarlow further emphasized interdisciplinarity by organizing a one-day symposium and series of panel discussions featuring scholars of varying disciplines, public lectures, and artist-led workshops for middle-school students that occurred throughout the semester.
The second essay is a reproduction of the keynote speech of the symposium, written by Johnnetta Betsch Cole who is the director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art. As a professor in the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, from 1970 to 1983, Cole provided a unique perspective on the university’s associations with Du Bois in addition to the reverberating effects of Pan-Africanism and other sociopolitical movements present on its campus. Apart from providing a biography of Du Bois that detailed his work as a public intellectual, Cole’s essay also highlights his beliefs on the importance of art in the mission of progress and race redefinition for African Americans in the early twentieth century. For the remaining portion of the essay, Cole analyzes each of the ten artists’ works by not only contextualizing them, but also considering the ways in which they intersect with Du Bois’s thinking.
In the third essay, James T. Campbell explores the complexities and idiosyncrasies present in Du Bois’s intellectual oeuvre. Given Du Bois’s writings about art, Campbell presents an important line of questioning by asking: “What would Du Bois . . . make of these works of art, inspired by his life and mounted in a university museum just up the road from his boyhood home?” (35) As Campbell asserts, while Du Bois was a stalwart for the creative expressions of black Americans, which he envisioned to be beneficial to human civilization, his own taste in art was markedly Eurocentric. This is noticeable in his creative work, including The Star of Ethiopia (1911) historical pageant. Campbell also points out that Du Bois was not necessarily embraced by all writers of the time, including Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman. Toward the end of the essay, Campbell discusses a few of the artworks from the exhibition that he believed Du Bois would appreciate.
The fourth essay, a compelling contribution by Reiland Rabaka, considers Du Bois as a literary artist, something often overlooked in studies of this eminent figure. Rabaka rightly proclaims that the artworks in the exhibition “resuscitate Du Bois the aesthete and literary artist” and that “what we are viewing and experiencing are translations of Du Bois’s literary legacy into contemporary art” (43). The reader will appreciate Rabaka’s recognition of Du Bois’s words (the medium of the literary artist) as forming the basis for all of the artworks in the exhibition, in particular Brendan Fernandes’s In the End (2013) and The Encyclopedia Africana (2013), Ann Messner’s Du Bois: The FBI Files (2013), and Tim Rollins & K.O.S.’s DARKWATER (after W. E. B. Du Bois) (2013). These pieces reflect the ethos of the Conceptual art movement which privileges concepts or ideas over traditional materials used in making art. Rabaka also gives an insightful interpretation of Radcliffe Bailey’s artworks, Double Consciousness (2013) and Untitled (2013), discussing how the pieces disrupt the imperialist hold that European and American readings of African-descended peoples have had on black subjectivity. Another section of Rabaka’s essay examines Du Bois’s commitment to women’s rights and women’s liberation, connecting his women-centered work to the art of Mickalene Thomas and LaToya Ruby Frazier among others.
The final essay in the catalogue, by Bill Strickland, explores Du Bois’s legacy as an international public intellectual and political activist. Through an examination of artworks by Frazier and Messner, Strickland explicates how the lack of equal access to opportunities and the threat of governmental surveillance are issues that are still being dealt with in the twenty-first century.
The section dedicated to the commissioned artworks features striking color plates of paintings, video stills, and photographs, in addition to photographs offering multiple viewpoints of sculptures and installations in the exhibition space. Immediately after this extensive section is a reproduction of artists’ statements that help clarify the conceptual framework with which they created their works. Apart from utilizing the Du Bois archives at the university, the artists also consulted with Du Bois scholars to catalyze their critical engagement with the material.
Distinct yet related, the correlating exhibition in Accra premiered in March 2014 at the Nubuke Foundation and the Du Bois Memorial Centre. The eight artists in Accra utilized Du Bois’s archives, including his personal library, at the Centre as a point of departure for their works. They also participated in a multimedia art workshop that gave them an opportunity to use sound, photography, and video.
A photograph of each artwork was featured along with artists’ statements. While the latter give the reader a sense of the artists’ methodologies and aesthetic trajectories, it is somewhat challenging to get a considerable understanding of the artworks since the majority of them were video-based and only one video still of each work was included. A work by Mary Evans, Pantheon (2013), was featured in the Accra exhibition; a mixed-media installation, it considers “the ‘domestic’ ambience of the Du Bois Centre” by focusing on how a decorative object could be used as a site for political and social propaganda (179). Bernard Akoi-Jackson’s contribution, which was influenced by a notion of Du Bois’s life and work being borne out of hybridity and entanglement, was also thought-provoking. The artist gained inspiration from Du Bois’s diverse racial background, in addition to his myriad of ideological beliefs and life experiences, which he likened to a bricolage.
At the same time, an art-historical enquiry by one or two art historians would have been advantageous. While it is important to keep in mind that Amherst’s University Museum of Contemporary Art is an educational museum, and the director’s intention was to make the exhibition and its associated symposia interdisciplinary, this should not attenuate the significance of having an art-historical perspective. Nonetheless Du Bois In Our Time contributes tremendously to a previously ignored area of African American art history, African diasporic art history, and American art history at large.
Samantha A. Noel
Assistant Professor of Art History, James Pearson Duffy Department of Art and Art History, Wayne State University