Re-accessing the power of art in the discipline of Pan-African studies.

Author:Johnson, Pearlie M.


This essay begins with a brief overview of the Civil Rights movement, which led to the Black Power movement that simultaneously gave rise to the Black Arts movement. Drawing from the writings of a number of different scholars, including sociologists Clovis E. Semmes (1985) "Minority Status and the Problem with Legitimacy" and Fabio Rojas (2007) From Black Power to Black Studies, and art historians Nell Painter in Creating Black Americans: African-American History and its Meanings, 1619 to the Present (2006), Sharon Patton in African American Art (1998), and Lisa Farrington in Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists (2005), the essay examines the role visual arts played in the Black Power movement and the positive impact it has had on Pan-African Studies as a discipline. Various works of art have been selected to accompany this essay, which will be discussed within an art historical, social and political context. Such works include: Charles Alston Walking (1958), Jeff Donaldson Aunt Jemima & the Pillsbury Doughboy (1963) and Wives of Shango (1968) OBAC and The Wall of Respect (1967), Elizabeth Catlett Negro-es Bello II (1969), David Hammons Injustice Case (1970), Betye Saar The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972), and contemporary quilter Yvonne Wells in Being In Total Control of Herself

Although African American women and men had served in wars for freedom since the American Revolution (1770-76), those who served in World War II (1939-1945) returned an empowered people. Putting their lives on the line for the freedom of people unknown to them, and at the same time fighting racism and discrimination with fellow soldiers while abroad, African Americans were ready to take a stance against oppression in their own country--in their own neighborhoods. Hoping that their service in the War would lead to better job and housing opportunities, most Black soldiers returned to find only disappointment. The Service Adjustment's Act, informally known as the G.I. Bill of Rights, was a law established to provide returning soldiers with financial support in their efforts to adjust to civil life. One key was low-interest rate mortgages, which eventually led to suburban life for the majority of White America, but would lead to urban renewal, gentrification, and ghettoization for the majority of Black America (Herbes-Sommers, 2003).

This type of separatism continued to support the long-established "separate-but-equal" doctrine solidified in Plessy (1896). The fact was that one's residence governs where one is allowed to attend school, which often determines the quality of one's education. African American families across the country fought for equal schools and equal education for their children. Based on the Fourteenth Amendment, Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. The Brown decision would eventually lead to the desegregation of Jim Crow schools throughout the South, as well as become a catalyst for the Civil Rights movement.

The modern Civil Rights movement is often associated with the Montgomery bus boycott. It started at the grassroots level and was organized through Black churches. Women played an important role in the boycott, which included Jo Ann Robinson, professor of English at Alabama State, Rosa Parks who willing went to jail, and ordinary women dedicated to the cause. Men and women from both the domestic and professional classes were involved; thousands of people avoided riding city buses and instead walked to work.

Post-war artist Charles Henry Alston captured their determined spirit in Walking, 1958 (Figure 1). Alston was born in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was formally trained in studio art at Columbia University, where he earned his B.F.A. and M.F.A. degrees (Painter, 2006, p.41718). He was a supervisor with the WPA and a founding member of the 306 Group (the black avant-garde), where African American artists (painters, sculptors, and writers) would meet to discuss and exchange ideas about what their art should be and do (Bearden, 1993, p. 234-35). Thus, he played a critical role in raising the level of black consciousness in African American artists in New York.

Alston was introduced to African sculpture early in his formal training. He also gained hands-on experience with African art objects while working with Alain Locke to curate exhibitions for public libraries in Harlem (Bearden and Henderson, 1993, p. 261). Alain Locke was one of the first philosophers and art critics who called for African American artists to turn to Africa for inspiration in their work (Locke, 1925). For Locke, if European artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Andrea Derain, and Amedeo Modiglianai could capitalize from using African elements in their work, then so should African American artists, especially since it was their own heritage. Bearden and Henderson's essay on Charles Alston includes part of an interview where Alston talks about his experience with Locke and African Art:

When Locke put on a show of African art at the 135th Street Public Library, one of its earliest exhibitions in the United States, he called me. I helped him arrange things, which gave me a chance to feel them and look at them and examine them (1993, p. 261). This sensory experience helped Alston to begin to appreciate African Art and its differences from Western Art. He was captivated with the way Modigliani utilized African spatial concepts, by elongating the neck in his work (Beardon and Henderson, 1993). The elongated necks and mask-like faces reflect the African influence in Alston's art. He also implores a cubist style, where figures are fractured into geometric form.

Cubism was an art style developed by European painters Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Cubism in modern art was introduced with Picasso's 1907 painting Les Demoiselles de ' Avignon, well-known for its appropriation of African Masks. In Walking, however, Alston uses bright rich colors to give volume to his forms. Heads held high, steps in unison, his painting illustrates how people were so empowered in their fight for justice that they opted to trudge the arduous task of walking come rain, sleet, or shine rather than be subjected to the racial slurs and demeaning treatment of White bus-drivers, other White passengers and White police. The Montgomery bus boycott was the beginning of what would later become a strategy used during the 1960s in the struggle for liberation, equality, and empowerment.

It might be inferred that empowered veteran soldiers of the 1940s raised their families with an attitude that they were entitled to more. Let us remember, it was the young people of later generations, especially those of the 1960s, who established groups and organizations that would form the front-lines of the Civil Rights movement. This included the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), known for its lunch counter sit-ins and voter registration drives. This also...

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