The Black Arts Movement and the Black Panther Party in American Visual Culture
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The Black Arts Movement and the Black Panther Party in American Visual Culture

Jo-Ann Morgan

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eBook - ePub

The Black Arts Movement and the Black Panther Party in American Visual Culture

Jo-Ann Morgan

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This book examines a range of visual expressions of Black Power across American art and popular culture from 1965 through 1972. It begins with case studies of artist groups, including Spiral, OBAC and AfriCOBRA, who began questioning Western aesthetic traditions and created work that honored leaders, affirmed African American culture, and embraced an African lineage. Also showcased is an Oakland Museum exhibition of 1968 called "New Perspectives in Black Art, " as a way to consider if Black Panther Party activities in the neighborhood might have impacted local artists' work. The concluding chapters concentrate on the relationship between selected Black Panther Party members and visual culture, focusing on how they were covered by the mainstream press, and how they self-represented to promote Party doctrine and agendas.

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Informazioni

Editore
Routledge
Anno
2018
ISBN
9780429885877
Edizione
1
Argomento
Kunst

Part I
“Black Arts We Make”

Aesthetics, Collaboration, and Social Identity in the Visual Art of Black Power

Introduction to Part I

Artists Jae Jarrell (born 1935) and Wadsworth Jarrell (born 1929) attended a public conversation about their work while the exhibition “Witness—Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” was up at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College a couple years ago.1
As they spoke, an artwork by each projected onscreen behind them. (See Plate 5). There was Wadsworth Jarrell’s Revolutionary (1971), an acrylic painting of Angela Davis, articulated in a vibrant mosaic of primary colored letters spelling “resist” and “revolution.” Next to his portrait was Jae Jarrell’s Revolutionary Suit (1969), a salt-and-pepper tweed wool skirt with matching jacket trimmed in a band of bullet-shaped crayons. Wadsworth had been inspired by Jae’s bandolier to similarly drape a belt of bullets over Davis. The accouterment signified revolution, at least since Huey P. Newton stood alongside Bobby Seale wearing one in a photograph shortly after their 1966 co-founding of the Black Panther Party. While a growing membership of Black Panthers were touting “all power to the people” in Oakland, California, the Jarrells and fellow artists in Chicago sought to empower through art. In 1967 as part of the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), a group of artists had composed the Wall of Respect, an outdoor community mural that honored African Americans from the arts and public life. The next year the Jarrells formed AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) with fellow Chicago veterans of “the Wall” Jeff Donaldson, Barbara Jones-Hogu, and studio neighbor Gerald Williams. Carolyn Mims Lawrence, who had also worked on the Wall, joined soon after. By 1970, AfriCOBRA numbered “Ten in Search of a Nation,” the title of their national debut at the recently opened Studio Museum in Harlem, the first major museum devoted to African American art.2
As Wadsworth Jarrell’s Revolutionary Davis portrait and Jae Jarrell’s bullet-adorned Revolutionary Suit loomed overhead, the moderator, art historian Rebecca Zorach, attentive to Dartmouth students in the audience, asked him, “Were you thinking of your work itself as revolutionary? Or, were you thinking of your artwork as a kind of support and illustration of revolution?” Previously serious, even solemn, the octogenarian artist bent over in laughter. “We thought we were revolutionaries.” Repeating the claim, he chuckled again, and explained that while they had not participated in organized protests or been like the Black Panthers, simply stated, “Our agenda was with art. We fought with paint, and other materials.”3
Zorach’s prompting and Jarrell’s response pinpoints a situation many artists in the 1960s faced about the role of art in an African American freedom struggle. As the quest for exercising civil rights was fast evolving into a demand for Black power, visual artists joined writers, musicians, and others vying for social and political change. Artists were becoming attentive to the challenge Malcolm X had posed in a speech for the founding of the Organization of Afro-American Unity. “We must recapture our heritage and our identity if we are ever to liberate ourselves from the bonds of white supremacy. We must launch a cultural revolution to unbrainwash an entire people.”4 Heeding this call was especially difficult in the fine arts, long controlled by rules and tools tracing through centuries of Western cultural dominance back to ancient Greece and Rome. Could one effect African American cultural advancement within a system of expression that reinforced powerful whites and their institutions? Despite obstacles, from around 1965 through 1972 African American visual artists cultivated a new aesthetic within time-honored artistic mediums—painting, printmaking, sculpture, textile design—to fundamentally redefine the forms, content, and visual aesthetics of their art as part of the Black Arts Movement.
Playwright and poet Amiri Baraka (1934–2014, known as LeRoi Jones until 1967) is credited with initiating ideas about “Black art.” As far back as 1961, he was using the phrase in his poetry, writing “Black arts we make in black labs of the heart.”5 He even titled a poem “Black Art” (1965) in which he called out, “Let the world be a Black Poem, And Let All Black People Speak This Poem, Silently or LOUD.”6 When in 1965 he established the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School (BART/S) in Harlem, the concept coalesced into a movement. African American writers, mostly, along with musicians and eventually visual artists, decided Black people should speak unimpeded by genres, conventions, venues, or other dominant culture impositions to take charge of their own cultural production and presentation.
The Black Arts Movement was not only about making revolutionary art, it was about finding ways to share a revolutionary message. Writers returned to the Black community to read poetry, musicians to perform music, and artists to paint murals. Baraka (as LeRoi Jones) had just won an Obie for his off-Broadway play Dutchman (1964) when he left Manhattan to launch BART/S uptown in Harlem. New York visual artists of the group Spiral were mostly mid-career and could likely have found a commercial gallery willing to show their new work, but they chose to hold their one exhibition in the storefront studio where they met. “Works in Black and White” of 1965, their response to southern freedom struggles, was offered in the community and well attended. The Studio Museum in Harlem, which mounted AfriCOBRA’s “Ten in Search of a Nation,” was founded on a commitment to showcase Black artists and educate the Black community. As editors John H. Bracey Jr., Sonia Sanchez, and James Smethurst assess in their study of the Black Arts Movement, by eschewing established commercial spaces, visual artists were stressing “art as a process of personal and social liberation rather than as a product or artifact to be sold or appreciated in an abstract way.”7
In 1968, dramatist Larry Neal penned a seminal article, “The Black Arts Movement,” reflecting upon the creative impetus that had emerged across the arts in tandem with social and political changes wrought by the ongoing liberation struggle. Neal proclaimed:
The Black Arts Movement is radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community. Black Art is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. As such, it envisions an art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of black America. In order to perform this task, the Black Arts Movement proposes a radical reordering of the Western cultural aesthetic. It proposes a separate symbolism, mythology, critique, and iconology.8
If, as Neal stated, Black Art was the aesthetic and spiritual sister of Black Power, Part I of The Black Arts Movement and the Black Panther Party in American Visual Culture asks how that sibling manifested visually. What separate symbolism, mythology, critique, and iconography were employed, and how did they come into being?
Neal acknowledged that whereas the notion of black arts was ancient, the term was being embraced in “a positive sense” among contemporaries.9 Baraka later reflected on why the designation was apropos.
We linked the common Eurocentric distortion of Black Arts as an evil magic, as a mystic pursuit. A power used to transform reality. We had before long understood the twisted racism of Europe and America when referring to Black…. Understanding, in various degrees, that ‘to turn their Evil backward, is to Live!’10
What Baraka called “the twisted racism of Europe and America” enjoyed a tenacious history in the fine arts. For visual artists, even more important than breaking free of European style was to see themselves represented in honorable ways, the guiding theme of OBAC’s Wall of Respect.
Up until the twentieth century, very few African descendants were main subjects of American paintings. When present, they were likely to be subordinates of prosperous and powerful whites—slaves, servants, or picturesque peasants. In the popular arts they fared even worse. From chromolithographs and other commercial prints of the nineteenth century, through magazines and into film and television of the twentieth century, mainstream media had relied on African Americans for comedy, pathos, or, at best, exotic reminders of colonial conquests. The title said it all in Donald Bogle’s 1973 study of American films, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks. Reis-sued many times, the book remains a reliable and widely used Film Studies text.11
On the rare occasion when an African American artist had been accorded public esteem, accolades came with the invariable qualifier “Negro artist.” Writing in the late 1960s, art historian Marcia Mathews noted this tendency prevailed in turn-ofthe-century press reviews of renowned painter Henry Ossawa Tanner.12 The Baltimore Sun once boasted “Henry Tanner, An American Negro” had won a prestigious award at the 1908 Paris Salon, then pasted the photograph of an anonymous black man alongside the article.13 By the 1960s such disrespect had become intolerable. To mainstream critics, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author Gwendolyn Brooks was a “fine negro poet.” At the same time, she was a mentor to younger writers of Chicago’s OBAC, for whom it was imperative they were “Black,” a term of respect.14 The “so-called Negro,” of Malcolm X’s disdain, was being relegated to the past.15
Art historians are inclined to reflect on the 1920s as those halcyon days after African Americans left the South and found opportunity for creative expression in northern cities. Black Arts era artists, however, were more measured in their regard, finding the so-named Harlem Renaissance to be a “cautionary tale as much as a beloved parent.”16 Granted, the period produced scores of success stories. Palmer C. Hayden, William H. Johnson, Laura Wheeler Waring, and Hale Woodruff were but a few whose paintings gained recognition and, for them, William E. Harmon Foundation prize money. However, their themes rarely addressed issues of the masses or engaged with working-class audiences, as would artists of the 1960s. Funding came primarily from white philanthropists. In addition to awarding prizes, the Harmon Foundation, as example, also organized an annual “Exhibition of the Work of Negro Artists.” Artists may have felt restrained in the images they could produce, with Harmon judges inclined to favor tr...

Indice dei contenuti

  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Series Page
  4. Title
  5. Copyright
  6. Dedication
  7. Contents
  8. List of Figures
  9. Preface: Picturing Black Power
  10. PART I “Black Arts We Make”: Aesthetics, Collaboration, and Social Identity in the Visual Art of Black Power
  11. PART II The Black Panther Party in Photography and Print Ephemera
  12. Bibliography
  13. Index
Stili delle citazioni per The Black Arts Movement and the Black Panther Party in American Visual Culture

APA 6 Citation

Morgan, J.-A. (2018). The Black Arts Movement and the Black Panther Party in American Visual Culture (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1380392/the-black-arts-movement-and-the-black-panther-party-in-american-visual-culture-pdf (Original work published 2018)

Chicago Citation

Morgan, Jo-Ann. (2018) 2018. The Black Arts Movement and the Black Panther Party in American Visual Culture. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis. https://www.perlego.com/book/1380392/the-black-arts-movement-and-the-black-panther-party-in-american-visual-culture-pdf.

Harvard Citation

Morgan, J.-A. (2018) The Black Arts Movement and the Black Panther Party in American Visual Culture. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1380392/the-black-arts-movement-and-the-black-panther-party-in-american-visual-culture-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Morgan, Jo-Ann. The Black Arts Movement and the Black Panther Party in American Visual Culture. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2018. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.