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An African American Art Manifesto

By Philip Muzi Branch

(This is the unedited version of the article published in IMAGES magazine, Fall Issue 2005)

Manifesto In Art - a public declaration or exposition in print of the theories and directions of a movement. The manifestos issued by various individual artists or groups of artists, in the first half of the twentieth century served to reveal their motivations and raisons d «etre and stimulated support for or reactions against them.

 

I am an African American, a visual artist and an art educator.  Often I am asked, “What is African American visual art?”  The question does not seem to be complex.  However, upon serious reflection,  it is very difficult to answer that question succinctly.  The inquiry is really two-questions-in-one.  If it is answered without addressing both of the implied questions I do a disservice to African American artists and African American culture.  Allow me to explain.  When I am asked, “What is African American art?”  I am really being asked, (1)“What is the difference between African American art and Western art?”  And (2) “Is all art created by African American people African American art? ” 

 

African American art is a Neo-Western art form.  It is a legitimate and autonomous culture-based art movement.  It is generally treated like it is the illegitimate child of Western art.  African American art has traditionally been ignored by the mainstream art establishments and treated just a little different from the rest of the Western art family, which includes European and American art.   It is marginally included in the museums, galleries and Western art history books.

 

My extensive research, intensive study and cultural insight has led me to concluded that (1) there is a difference between “art that is created by an African American” and “African American art”; and (2) African American art is a unique cultural phenomenon.

 

To help you understand the difference between visual art that is created by an African American and African American art consider the following: Winton Marsalis writes a Euro-centric classical piece of music for the symphony that does not make any reference to his culture.  That piece of music is not African American music.  If P’ Diddy gives a lecture on being a player, driving expensive cars, and spending money in the club that speech cannot be classified as African American Rap.  If Judith Jamison were to dance an authentic Irish jig that dance would not be African American dance.  Then, logically, all art objects regardless of the content or style, which African American visual artists create, cannot be categorized as African American art.  If I create a work that is comprised of imagery from Japanese culture, replicating or synthesizing Japanese designs, written language, Icons, and their unique human qualities and make no reference to African American culture, that particular artwork to some art critiques, curators and collectors is still categorized as African American art.  It should be categorized as Japanese art created by an African American.  Now, do you get my point?

 

Historically any artwork that was produced by an African American person was considered African American art regardless of the style, content or imagery.  The major criterion for a work-of-art to be included in an African American Art exhibit is that the artists be African American.  African American art exhibits were promoted and made popular during the Harlem Renaissance[1].  The Harmon Foundation[2], in an effort to promote the work of African American artists and to advance the concept of African American art as a cultural phenomenon, created the perception that African American art was the exclusive domain of African American artists (that’s like saying only Native Americans can make a totem pole).  The Harmon Foundation set a precedent with these exhibits while creating unintentional racist boundaries.  The foundation did not separate the artists from the artwork.

During that same era Alain Locke philosophically and financially supported the black visual arts.  He believed that the African American artist, in order to create a distinctive and recognizable culture-based art form, must derive all themes from their African heritage and/or their distinctive American experiences.  He referred to this as “their own racial milieu as a special province.”  Those who explored these themes were referred to as the Africanists or Neo-Primitives.  Locke felt that this group of visual artists carried “the burden of the campaign for a so-called ‘Negro Art.’  “  Locke defined the Africanists as those artists who derived their inspiration from the principles of African design.[3]

 

My research has led me to believe that the criterions for African American visual art are the same as those that apply to African American music, dance, and theater.  All of these forms of African American art express the religious, political and social manners and customs of African American culture.  African American visual art uses symbolic images, subject matter, iconography, ideological content, pigment combinations and techniques that are inherent to African American culture.  African American visual art speaks to or tells the story of the African Diaspora who live in North America. 

 

I am convinced through my research that there are distinct cultural mores, ideological statements and aesthetic qualities in African American visual art that sets it apart from all other cultures’ visual art.  Primarily, it has been, and continues to be, African American artists contributing to the tradition of African American visual art.  But, it is possible for someone of a different culture to create African American art and advance its development.  The painting

Madonna And Child

 “Madonna and Child” by Hulis Mavruk  is a very good example of African American art.  The artist, Hulis Mavruk, is Turkish by culture and national origin.  He chooses to create African American art. 

 

There are those who believe that African American culture has only a brief history in the visual arts.  The fact is that African American visual art is as mature and developed as African American music, theatre and dance.  African American visual art captures the essence of the culture from its beginning to the present.  It speaks to us through time and space.  African American visual art is a tradition that began with artist like Scipio Moorhead[4]; and its legacy directly relates to the painters that created African rock art 8000 years ago[5].  African American art was developed during the 300 years that Africans were forced to work under the institution of slavery and the 100 years African Americans had to endure the institution of Jim Crow.  We must always remember that descendants of African People became African Americans.  African Americans created a new culture unique in its artistic expression through music (rap is included in this category), dance, theater, and the visual arts. 

 

There are curators and collectors of African American art who make no distinction between the artists that they have chosen to collect and the artwork in their collection.  What I mean by this statement is that there are some African American artists that choose to create artwork that in no way represents their own culture.  Their work should not be considered African American art and it should not be in an African American art collection.  The distinction must be made between the two types of collections and collectors.  There are collectors of art created by African Americans and collectors of African American art.  Museums and Galleries must also make the distinction between the two types of collections.  Museums escape the responsibility of having to develop an “African American gallery” by including mainstream African American artist in their collection of contemporary Art.  By doing this they deny the existence of our unique visual voice.  Contemporary artists like Charles Bibbs, Larry Poncho Brown, Paul Goodnight, Lashaun Beal, Hulis Mavruk, Dr. Murray DePillars and others have no gallery in museums that is dedicated to the images that they produce.  Their artwork is judged by a criteria created outside of the culture that their art addresses.  African Americans support and endorse the art of these artists because it speaks to them and speaks for them in the same way that Western art speaks to and for Western culture.  Museums, especially the publicly supported institutions, are obligated to establish a forum for the world to see our art and know the artists that create it. 

 

The established Western art world has dubbed contemporary African American art that is mass-produced “Popular Art”.   This is just another misnomer.  It is another attempt to justify the exclusion of our voice from museums. The established art world continues its’ tradition of racist ideology and creates another artificial barrier.  I have no doubt that if the technology were available many of the “old masters of Western art” would have reproduced their work to make their living.  In fact, reproductions of the Western masters’ paintings are made posthumously and sold all the time.  The aforementioned practitioners of African American visual art make their own reproductions and are able to make the money themselves. Patrons of African American art are predominately African American people.  African American culture doesn’t have to compete with or buy into the artificial pricing or economic extravagance of Western fine art to be legitimized.  Mass-production doesn’t reduce the importance of the content and technique of African American art.  Mass-production makes the art affordable not worthless.        

 

Many Universities have courses in art history dedicated to the investigation of African American art.  Most of the courses do not make a distinction between the Artists and the artwork.  To my knowledge there are no academic programs that teach artists how to produce African American fine art.  There are courses where you can learn Asian bamboo brush techniques or raku ceramic firing, Ukrainian egg decoration, or African crafts.  Academia legitimizes the aforementioned unique cultural forms of artistic expression.  I believe that artists can be taught to express themselves in an Afrocentric way.  There are rules that can be canonized and a curriculum that can be developed.     

 

African American visual art has different levels in the same way that the music, dance and theater have different levels.  The levels are created, categorized and marketed based on their intended audience.  These different levels are purely a class-driven hierarchy.  There is a class distinction made between popular arts and fine arts.  In the world of African American visual art the class distinction is made between original art, limited editions and open editions.  The distinction is also made between prints and reproductions. 

 

Artists that create African American visual art have not received the same commercial acceptance or public exposure as artists that create African American music, African American theater or African American dance.  Nonetheless, the visual art of African American culture evolves as a soulful aesthetic expression of lifestyle, creativity, and intellect.  It creates and recreates images that pay homage to the history; bestow accolades to the aspirations and gives kudos to the accomplishments of Northern America’s people of African decent.

 

Now let me address the second part of the Original question: What’s the Difference between African American Art and Western Art?  The lines are blurred when it comes to European American Culture and African American Culture.  From 1619 through the present day the two cultures have literally developed side-by-side but segregated.  Today it is difficult to determine where one culture ends and the other begin.  This blurring of the lines was fueled by the competitiveness of the two cultures.  Historically, when one of the legally separated and later institutionally segregated cultures created “something new”, the other was eager to show that they could do this “new thing”.  The European American culture, having the economics and political mechanism to control, capitalize and exploit the dissemination of the “something new”, got the credit.  Some examples: Bo Derrick made wearing braids popular, the number one rapper is EMINEM, the King of Rock and Roll is Elvis, the best Jazz dance choreographer is Bob Fosse, the best selling jazz artist is Kenny G and so on and so on.    

Visual artists in America of European decent have always been considered to be contributors to the development of Western art.  Many art history books make a smooth transition from European artist like Michelangelo, Raphael, Renoir, Degas, and Monet to American artists like Thomas Gainsborough, Thomas Eakins, Willem De Kooning and Jackson Pollock.

I argue that the American artists of European lineage have not created anything new culturally (literal, visual, musical, or theatrical).  White America’s culture is a continuation of European culture.  It never lost contact with its’ roots.  On the other hand, African American visual artist were forging a new form of fine art expression in a unique crucible.  Just like jazz music is the only original American music, African American visual art is the only original American visual art form.

 

Some early African American Artists were intentionally creating art that reflected the aesthetic of European art.  These artists worked hard to overcome the color barrier that separated them and their artwork from the mainstream.  Artists like Edmonia Lewis[6] created both Western and African American Art.  However, all of her artwork is categorized as African American art.   These three examples

“Poor Cupid” “The Arrow Maker”  and “Forever Free”

 are the work of Ms. Edmonia “Wildfire” Lewis.  She visually speaks to her audience using three distinctly different cultural iconic means of expression.  In example #1 she created a neo-classical western sculpture in content, imagery and style, but in 2 and 3 she synthesizes western and non-western expression.  African American artist Dr. Selma Burke created the image of Franklin Roosevelt for the US dime coin.  But, the dime is not considered African American art.  Dr. Burke created both Western and African American art.  By the way, in November 2003 a bill was introduced in Congress to remove Dr. Burke’s artwork from circulation and replace it with a Ronald Reagan US Dime coin[7].  Henry Ossawa Tanner chose to work in both painting traditions.  The biblically inspired images that Tanner painted were executed in the Western tradition.  He portrays the biblical protagonists in his paintings as White people.  The development of the Image of a Black Jesus in African American art is a manifestation of its culture-based ideology and theology.  It can be concluded that creating the image of a Black Jesus is contrary to the Western art tradition.  The Black Jesus image comes out of African American cultural expression.   Italian renaissance artists painted Jesus in their own image and that representation of Jesus is still the standard in Western art.  When an artist paints a portrait of a Black Jesus it is considered African American art.  If a contemporary artist paints a portrait of a White Jesus he is still creating in the Western art tradition.  .

 

In the year 2000 The National Catholic Reporter announced its contest in search of a new image of Jesus for the third Christian millennium.  The winning painting depicted Jesus as a black man.  According to The Daily Record, a London newspaper, the creator of "Jesus of the People", Ms. Janet McKenzie of Island Pond, Vermont, USA, said that her goal "was to be as inclusive as possible."  I contend that she created a painting in the African American painting tradition.

 

The difference between African American art and western art is like the difference between Jazz music and Classical music.  We sum the difference up in one word: “SOUL.”  African American art is different from Western art in its’ imagery, content and cultural principles of design.  Ultimately it is African American people that have to determine what is and what isn’t African American art.  We must definitively answer the question: “what is African American visual art”?  We need to define it ourselves.  African American artists, as professionals in the field, have to identify and redefine African American visual art for the art world.  It is now time to actively campaign for African American art academically as a discipline, philosophically as a cultural phenomenon and commercially as a viable industry.

Philip Muzi Branch is a professional artist and an adjunct art instructor at Virginia State

University in Petersburg, VA

 

Footnotes

 

  1. Reynolds, Gary A.; Wright, Beryl J.; Driskell, David C.; Newark Museum, Gibbs Museum of Art, Charleston, SC; Chicago Public Library Cultural Center Against the Odds: African-American Artists and the Harmon Foundation, Hacker Art Books; 1990

 

  1. John C. Walter, THE HARMON FOUNDATION AND THE SPONSORSHIP OF CONTEMPORARY AFRICAN ARTISTS 1947 – 1967, Contours – A Journal of the African Diaspora, Fall 2003 Vol. 1 No. 2

 

  1. Encarta Africana, Microsoft

 

  1. Brentjes Burchard, AFRICAN ROCK ART, Dent, 1969

 

  1. Samella, Lewis, AFRICAN AMERICAN ART and ARTISTS, University of California Press; 2003

 

6.      108th Congress, 1st Session, H. R. 3633, In the House of Representatives, November 21, 2003

 


 

[1] From 1920 until about 1930 an unprecedented outburst of creative activity among African-Americans occurred in all fields of art. Beginning as a series of literary discussions in the lower Manhattan and upper Manhattan (Harlem) sections of New York City, this African-American cultural movement became known as "The New Negro Movement" and later as the Harlem Renaissance.

[2] William E. Harmon (1862-1928) a Caucasian real estate developer. In 1922 he established the Harmon Foundation in New York City to recognize African American achievements, not only in the fine arts but also in business, education, farming, literature, music, race relations, religious service and science.

[3] THE HARMON FOUNDATION AND THE SPONSORSHIP OF CONTEMPORARY AFRICAN ARTISTS, 1947-67 John C. Walter, American Ethnic Studies, University of Washington

[4] Moorhead is the African American artist that is credited with the silhouette portrait of the first African American female author, Phyllis Wheatley.  The silhouette appears on the cover of her book of poetry.

[5]Rock paintings and engravings are Africa's oldest continuously practiced art form. Depictions of elegant human figures, richly hued animals, and figures combining human and animal features—called therianthropes and associated with shamanism—continue to inspire admiration for their sophistication, energy, and direct, powerful forms. The apparent universality of these images is deceptive; content and style range widely over the African continent. Nevertheless, African rock art can be divided into three broad geographical zones—southern, central and northern. The art of each of these zones is distinctive and easily recognizable, even to an untrained eye.

[6] Details of Lewis’ early life are uncertain. Her father was a black American and her mother an Ojibwa Indian who named her Wildfire. Lewis changed her name to Mary Edmonia while studying at Oberlin College. At the school, Lewis was accused of theft and of trying to poison two classmates.  She was acquitted of both charges but  she was not allowed to graduate.  In 1863, Lewis moved to Boston and became a sculptor, specializing in abolitionists and Civil War heroes. Forever Free (1867), a marble sculpture now at the Howard University Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, is her most famous work. Lewis reached the peak of her fame when The Death of Cleopatra was presented at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. It is now in the National Museum of American Art in Washington, DC. The end of her life remains a mystery. Lewis was last reported living in Rome in 1911

[7] H. R. 3633 To provide for dime coins to bear the likeness of President Ronald Reagan, the Freedom President, in honor of his work in restoring American greatness and bringing freedom to captive nations around the world.