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

Comments

Kizsev said…
February's National Geographic magazine has a cover story on Black pharaohs of Egypt. It is a good and fair article. It also states that Ancient Egyptians, other than Nubian kings and soldiers, are in fact not generally black as most Afrocentrists claim. Ancient Egyptians looked down on Nubians as not as advanced or sophisticated as them but respected them as fighters. However it was the Nubians who became more Egyptian than Egypt when Egypt was run by feuding warlords. Phineas(pʒ-nḥsy) meaning the black one, was the generic Egyptian term used for Nubian foreigners.

I personally believe National Geographic, as it is a decent and honest magazine and not part of some white supremacist conspiracy. National supremacy, on the other hand is very real as can be seen across the world and it is the cause of many of the world's problems.
Minister Faust said…
I read the article. It's not insightful on the race issue at all, merely repeating the claims of the Aryan Model (Martin Bernal's term from *Black Athena*) that have been pushed for 250 years. *National Geographic* is hardly a definitive source and is not a scholarly magazine, although it is an enjoyable popular magazine.

You haven't given any criteria for how you assesed the magazine to be fair, so I'll leave that aside.

Your claim about Egyptian derision of Nubians as evidence that Egyptians were not "black" (whatever you think that term means) is without logic. The Germans conquered France twice and despised them. By your logic, at least one of those parties could not have been "white". The same could be said of the Japanese conquest of Manchuria, or Aztec destruction of Aztec rivals.

The standard Egyptian term for Nubians was "Nehhas", not the Greek word you gave. Your pronunciation guide shows the Egyptian root (pluralised, plus the direct article "pa", or "the"). "Nehhas" doesn't mean much in your non-specific use of the term "black" (whatever you think that means), given that Africans, unlike people in the Western paradigm, understand that Africans comprise an extremely wide array of physical types, as is attested by Egyptian painting and sculpture of Egyptians themselves. And the further south one goes, the more that Westerners would describe the ancient and modern peoples as looking "black" (whatever that term is supposed to mean).

Your claim that the "Ancient Egyptians... are in fact not generally black" is locked inside Western false racial constructs which I explore in my article here:

http://www.vueweekly.com/article.php?id=7820.

I've got numerous links on my KEMET section of the Bro-Log addressing this issue. The conceit of the Aryan paradigm is that facial types found across modern Harlem, Brazil, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and other places--of people who would be called "black" in the United States--are recruited into the "Caucasoid" or "proto-Caucasoid" groups if found in Ancient Egypt. This double-standard serves the ideology of Whitesupremacy well.

Your dismissive use of the term "conspirary" and the phrase "some white supremacist conspiracy" misses the point. "Conspiracies," by definition, are illegal. *National Geographic* hasn't broken the law; no one in a shadowy room ordered this writer to write what he wrote. You're mistaking the analysis of ideology, socialisation and paradigm for an accusation of a "conspiracy" (whatever you think that term means). Such comments do nothing to move this debate forward, because you're setting up your own straw man.

I suggest you read Cheikh Anta Diop's *The African Origin of Civilisation*, Bernal's *Black Athena* and Richard Poe's *Black Spark, White Fire* (the most approachable of the three and definitely a popular edition). You'll find, especially in Poe, a fine address to your claims about "black" and "not black", whatever you think those terms mean.