Today, under black skies and torrential rain, I finally got to the Tate to see Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic, the exhibition that explores the impact of different black cultures from around the Atlantic on art from the early twentieth-century to today. The show takes its inspiration from Paul Gilroy’s influential book The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness 1993. and features over 140 works by more than 60 artists.
Gilroy used the term ‘The Black Atlantic’ to describe the transmission of black cultures around the Atlantic, and the forms of cultural mixing that occurred as a result of transatlantic slavery and its legacy. Gilroy conceived of the Atlantic Ocean as a ‘continent in negative’, a network connecting Africa, North and South America, the Caribbean and Europe, tracing routes (real and imagined) across the Atlantic.
There is a great deal of truly outstanding art in this exhibition, though I think it must be said that the quality and interest of the work declines considerably the closer one comes to the present.
The exhibition is divided into seven chronological sections. We start with the European avant-garde and the influence of African sculpture on artists such as Picasso and Brancusi. Then across the Atlantic we explore the impact of European modernism on emerging African-American artists, particularly those of the Harlem Renaissance group. The exhibition traces the emergence of modernism in Latin America and Africa and returns to Europe at the height of the jazz age and the craze for ‘Negrophilia’. The final section examines current debates around post-Black Art and features contemporary artists such as Chris Ofili and Kara Walker.
An interest in African art in Europe was initially aroused through the objects brought back from the colonies by traders and explorers in the nineteenth-century. Dissatisfied with traditional artistic conventions Picasso set out to re-invent art in his own terms, inspired by the direct approach of non-European culture. The mask-like face, wood-coloured body and hatched planes of Bust of a Woman (1909) reveal the influence of African carving. This faceting and breaking up of form was a stepping-stone to Cubism.
Other artists influenced by non-Western culture were Modigliani, with his highly stylised heads and figures, and Constantin Brancusi, who blended non-European sources with the traditional wood carvings of his native Romania.
European Modernism had a profound global influence. Artists from other continents encountered modern art-forms through travelling or studying in Europe. Tarsila do Amaral was taught by Cubist Fernande Léger and was inspired by European artists’ uses of non-Western culture. On her return to South America she turned to the indigenous art of her own continent. Moro da Favella (1925) represents a Brazilian subject in a style that fuses a wide range of influences experienced on her transatlantic travels.
This approach was shared by fellow artists who became known as the Brazilian Antropofagist movement. One of these artists was Lasar Segall, a Lithuanian who emigrated to Brazil in the 1920s. Banana Plantation (1927) uses a visual language derived from Cubism and German Expressionism allied to aspects of native South American art.
In the United States, artists of African descent appropriated European modernism in order to express a new confidence and pride in the arts and cultures of Africa. One of the first artists to use this new visual language for depicting themes of African heritage was Aaron Douglas. Aspiration (1936, top of page) contrasts images of slavery with the vision of an uplifted and educated future for African Americans in the ‘city built on a hill’. I was particularly struck by examples of his collaboration with Langston Hughes for the magazine Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life (1926) in which he illustrated several beautiful poems by Hughes that utilise the blues form.
I got to leave this town
This lonesome place
Got to leave this town
‘Cause it’s a lonesome place
A po’, po’ boy can’t
Find a friendly face
Goin’ down to de river
Flowin’ deep an slow
Goin’ down to de river
Deep an slow –
‘Cause there ain’t no worries
Where de waters go
In 1934, Douglas was commissioned by the Public Works of Art Project to paint a series of murals for the New York Public Library. His cycle, Aspects of Negro Life: the Negro in an African Setting (1934), traces the experience of the African American, from slavery in the Southern States to emancipation in the modern city. Douglas said, “I refuse to compromise and see blacks as anything less than a proud and majestic people.”
British artist Edward Burra was initially attracted to Harlem through his love of jazz music. The vibrancy of the area’s African-American culture is captured in Harlem (1934).
Another striking piece from this period is Sargent Johnson’s Forever Free, a monumental sculpture, in lacquered wood, of a proud and dignified mother protecting her children. Johnson was a prominent artist of Swedish, African American and Cherokee ancestry from the San Francisco Bay area who aimed to celebrate the beauty and dignity of the African American.
Pedro Figari was an artist from Uruguay who lived in Paris between 1925 and 1933 where his painting was influenced by Vuillard and Bonnard. A great deal of his work focuses on the Afro-Uruguayan community, and the memories of his youth in the district of Candombe.
The exhibition continues by tracing the influence of Négritude – the literary, artistic and political movement founded in 1930s Paris – on the visual arts of the Caribbean, South America and Africa. Négritude originated with a group of African and Caribbean students in Paris led by Martinican poet Aimé Césaire and the future Senegalese President Léopold Sédar Senghor. A rejection of colonial racism, Négritude aimed to reclaim the value of blackness and African culture. It was influenced by both Surrealism and the Harlem Renaissance.
With the advent of the Second World War, the ideas of Négritude spread as its leading figures left Paris for the Caribbean and Africa. New forms of modernism influenced by Négritude arose in these locations, including tendencies identified with creolisation in the Caribbean and the Natural Synthesis movement in Nigeria.
Creolisation reflected a blending of cultures and the acknowledgement by artists and writers that their cultural influences did not come solely from Africa. The concept of Natural Synthesis was conceived by the artist Uche Okeke following the independence of Nigeria in 1960. It proposed a fusion of European modernism with local African aesthetic influences, creating an artistic agenda for a nation reborn.
In Street to Mbari, the American artist Jacob Lawrence captures the flurry of a busy outdoor market in Nigeria.Lawrence first studied African art as a young man in New York during the Harlem Renaissance. In the 1960s he travelled to Nigeria, where he painted Street to Mbari.
Felix Idubor (1928-1991) was a Nigerian sculptor from Benin, part of a group of young artists in Nigeria in the 1950s and 1960s who raised awareness of the African artistic tradition at the time of decolonisation and independence. He is considered one of the pioneers of Nigerian contemporary art. The exhibition displays this photograph of his 1965 bas-relief for Independence House in Lagos.
The ‘Dissident Identities’ section of the exhibition deals with the counter-cultural politics of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Black art shifted focus to a concern with the specific social and political implications of slavery, segregation and oppression within societies such as the United States and Brazil. Highlighted here is the work of Romare Bearden who was involved in the struggle for Civil Rights. Bearden created a series of collages depicting scenes of African-American life that also commented on modernism and its use of African sculpture.
‘Reconstructing the Middle Passage’ examines how contemporary artists have revisited this historical trauma, throughn a process of imaginative recovery. This room reflects Paul Gilroy’s idea of the ship as both a symbol of the Black Atlantic and the mobile means by which it became linked. In Bird in Hand 2006 Ellen Gallagher explores a mythical ‘Black Atlantis’, a fictional underwater world populated by the descendents of pregnant slaves thrown overboard and whose unborn babies developed into a new marine life-form. Gallagher’s own identity as a black Irish-American is crucial to her interpretation of this myth which interweaves memories of oppression, migration and forgotten histories. The artist’s use of the traditional technique of scrimshaw, adds a sense of peeling back layers to this complex image.
The lightbox image, Western Union Series no. 1 (Cast No Shadow) 2007, by Isaac Julien is part of an installation work which investigates the wider context of diaspora, taking in latter day migrations from North Africa, Cuba and across the Caribbean. This meditative image also recalls the “door of no return” through which Africans once passed to board slave vessels: ‘We will miss you now that you are not with us’.
- Afro Modern: explore room by room (Tate)
- Drop Me Off in Harlem: exploring the intersections
- Black Atlantic: developing resource at Liverpool University