Aaron Douglas and Afriluminism
This is the third in a series of mini-essays commissioned by Vue Weekly for African History Month.
In 1993 I visited an artists’ workshop in Nairobi while visiting my father’s home country. I saw there why so much of what passes in the West for "African art" is such absolute garbage.
In little more than a hallway of a chop-shop, an assembly-line of men hacked pieces of wood into animal forms such as giraffes and rhinos, eventually smoothing them before finishing them with felt markers. Similar shops made “tribal masks” and other patronising, hackwork kitsch. Sure, I could blame Western buyers and the media culture that made them think such “rustic” feebleries were the best the continent had to offer.
But I had to admit, so long as the supply existed, the demand would not dry up. If someone made money from the stereotype, the stereotype could never die.
Of course, legions of genuine artists from across the African planet have generated beauty and wonder for millennia, from the sculptors and painters of ancient Nubia and Egypt to the stunning batik-makers of modern Senegal and the CG-imagists of the US.
Throughout the ages, oppression, ironically, been a powerful engine for cultural production; more predictably, oppression often restricts imagination. Africans were devolved into negroes in part by being taught to hate their Africanity; to overcome the culture of racial self-hatred, many painters fixated on their skin, turning out canvasses milling with featureless all-black figures at village markets, in worship or at play.
Initially exciting for the exaltation of the racially tabooed skin, the project quickly lost momentum due to the limitation of promoting “black” over “African,” a philosophy and aesthetic which are only skin-deep, or more accurately, skin-shallow.
But not everyone who painted black figures lacked imagination. One in particular was a genius.
In the 1920s and 30s, uptown Manhattan flowered with African cultural activity of a breadth and intensity not seen since the days of Timbuktu. What came to be called the Harlem Renaissance was an era, more than a place, for the synergy of revolutionaries (Marcus Garvey), authors (Zora Neal Hurston), actors (Paul Robeson) and philosophers (W.E.B. DuBois).One of the finest painters of the era was Aaron Douglas, founder of a style that might best be called Afriluminism.
Douglas was one of the first artists to employ silhouetted black bodies as racial emblems, but he did so more intriguingly and spectacularly than did anyone else.
Most notably, his figures had eyes. They not only were seen; they could see. They were not merely the objects of history, but its makers. Then there were the settings.
From mythic portraits of African histories to stunning vistas of African futures, Douglas did in painting what the unfolding literature of Afrofuturism did in print: reveal the continuing epic of Africans creating civilisation, overcoming oppression, and building new worlds.
Douglas’s “Building More Stately Mansions” (1944) is a stunning Harlemscape in subtle shades of Marcus Garvey’s Pan-Africanist flag. Powerful men in the foreground bearing construction tools and implements of science build a foundation, while a child gazes upon a black globe radiating concentric spheres of light. A foreman in pharaonic headdress seemingly issues a call to prayer, while behind and beyond him, modern towers and a Christian church are dwarfed by arches ancient and new, a pagoda-steeple seems to double as a radio antenna, and the Sphinx looks towards the pyramid of the African past while a gantry points towards the future.
Here in E-Town, local African artists are depicting their own realities at the TU Gallery’s “5 Artists. One Love” exhibition. “I’d never before seen a show that features local Black artists,” says curator and contributor Darren Jordan, whose own work is a saturated vitality of reds, oranges and purples. Deciding he would create the type of show he’d never seen, Jordan wanted “One Love” to reflect the diversity within the local African community. “The ‘One Love’ is the artists’ passion for art,” says Jordan of the Garveyist slogan. “Most people recognise ‘One Love’ as a title from a famous Bob Marley song, who also was very much a Garveyist.”
“One Love” features the photorealism of Richard Lipscombe, an artist whose family hails from Amber Valley, one of the score of communities founded by African-Albertans in the early 1900s. Lisa Mayes, the youngest artist, contributes innocent yet bold portraits, including of young ballerinas standing like flamingos awaiting flight. Carla Mooking’s pristine aesthetics meet the classical work of Zimbabwe’s Shumba Ash, soapstone sculpted to meet ancient Shona aesthetics and modern innovation. “I’m hoping people will get excited about art,” says Jordan, “and that people of all ethnic backgrounds will gain satisfaction from embracing diversity.”
Acclaimed poet Langston Hughes was correct when he noted that the decision to write a non-political poem during an epoch of oppression was in and of itself a political decision, but so was African-Canadian writer George Elliot Clark when he told me, “Black people have a right to beauty.” The body of African artists must collectively create works which illuminate the death camps and the pathways out of them, but they must also decant the light of butterfly wings and canyons at sunrise and distant pulsars and the yearnings of the human heart.
5 Artists. One Love * Feb. 2 – March 8
TU Gallery (http://www.tugallery.ca)
10718 - 124 St. * 452-9664
10am to 5pm Tues-Sat.; Thursdays to 8 pm