Expanded Narratives: Recent Scholarship in African American Art

Floyd Coleman

Henry O. Tanner A Mosque in Cairo, 1897, oil on canvas, 9 ½ x 13” William M. Lewis, Jr. and Carol Sutton Lewis Photo: Joshua NefskyAt the opening reception for   Samella Lewis and the African American Experience, Louis Stern Fine Arts, Los Angeles, February 25, 2012:  Samella Lewis (center) with friends.  Front row: Dianne Whitfield-Locke and Clark Baker.  Back: CHH Pounder, Richard A. Long.  Photo: collection of Clark Baker.Samella Lewis Field Hand (Girl), 1949 watercolor on paper, 11 1/2 x 9 ½” signed & dated lower right: S Lewis 1949 Collection of Nancy Silverton, Los Angeles, California. © Samella Lewis, courtesy Louis Stern Fine Arts. Photo: Gerard VuilleumierThornton Dial  The Morning of the End of the World, 2001, wood, clothing, carpet, enamel, and spray paint, 82 x 48 x 46” Courtesy of the artist and The Souls Grown Deep Foundation.Thornton Dial Sitting in the Shade, 1990, watercolor, 30 x 22 3/8”  Courtesy of Martha Howard CollectionMalvin Gray Johnson Self-Portrait, 1934, oil on canvas, mounted on canvas, 97.2 x 76.2 cm National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.  Gift of the Harmon FoundationCover image for Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum Jose Bedia  Pajaro que busca otro horizonte  (The Bird Who Seeks Another Land),?  1998  Photo courtesy Fowler MuseumAnna O. Marley, ed., Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Philadelphia,  Berkeley and Los Angeles: University  of California Press, 2011

Samella Lewis and the African American Experience, February 25 – April 21, 2012, West Hollywood, CA: Louis Stern Fine Arts Participating Gallery Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A., 1945-1980 “Samella Lewis” essay written by Suzanne Muchnic

Bernard L. Harmon, ed., Thornton Dial : Thoughts on Paper, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press published in association with the Ackland Art Museum, Forward by Emily Kass, 2011

Judith Bettelheim and Janet Catherine Berlo with contributions by Jose Bedia…[et al.],  A Transcultural Pilgrim: Three Decades of Works by Jose Bedia, Los Angeles in connection with  an exhibition held at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, 2011

Bridget R. Cooks,  Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum, Amherst: University of  Massachusetts Press, 2011

Jacqueline Francis, Making Race: Modernism and “Racial Art” in America, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012

These publications are important developments in the history of African American art and art historiography. In revealing how art encodes and expresses a wide spectrum of human concerns and subjectivities, these authors remind us of the centrality and importance of art as it expands our understanding of our selves and the numerous contradictions and immense complexities of our world. 

For the purposes of this review essay, the publications are considered within two categories: The first: publications examining the work of a single artist - Henry O. Tanner, Samella Lewis, Jose Bedia  and Thornton Dial.   All are important publications accompanying significant exhibitions of these artists’ work.

The second category focuses on a particular subject and contextualizes it in order to show how that subject is interconnected to broad concepts and issues in art, art history and various aspects of cultural life. Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans  and American Art Museums  and  Making Race: Modernism and  ‘Racial Art’ in America are two very fine examples of this approach.

Without question, Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit is the most scholarly publication and the eponymous exhibition, the most comprehensive show, ever devoted to Tanner, his art and life.  In the introductory essay, exhibition curator Anna O. Marley astutely frames the major issues explored in this book and exhibition project, and makes a modest, but very telling observation about the reception of Tanner’s work.  She maintains that after Tanner’s  death his paintings were seen “not merely as works of art but as icons of community.”

Marley and the outstanding contributing scholars - David C. Driskell, Richard J. Powell,  Robert Cozzolino, Adrienne J. Childs, Tyler Stovall, and Michael Leja, among others - fill the 308 page book  with powerfully resonating essays that present Tanner in high relief and examine his work in light of late 19th  and early 20th century modernism. 

One particularly revealing passage in Powell’s essay shows how Tanner’s trailblazing expatriate experience psychologically distanced him from African Americans in this country, although he had a continuing relation with them.   

With scholarly insight and authority, all of the essayists connect, combine and contextualize biography, critical reception, art historical and critical analysis to foreground Tanner as the pre-eminent African American artist and one of the most important artists working in America and Europe during the period.   In sum, this book expands the discourse on Tanner’s artistic production, his interaction and influence on his French peers, and his continuous relationship with many African  American artists, religious and cultural leaders.

Samella Sanders Lewis is from the South –   New Orleans, Louisiana, the cross-cultural capitol of North America.  It is not surprising that this dense multicultural site would be the foundational influence for Lewis’ broad cultural and intellectual pursuits in a wide variety of areas ? studio art, art history and interdisciplinary scholarship, museum administration and publishing.  Accordingly, the strength of the book, Samella Lewis and the African American Experience, accompanying the exhibition at LA’s Louis Stern Fine Arts gallery, lies in how it presents expansive, multifaceted profile of this artist-scholar.

Contributions to the volume show that through her work as a professor of art history, art, Chinese language and culture and the humanities; and as a writer and curator, Lewis helped to change the history of American art.  Much of this was accomplished by expanding parameters of traditional art historical discourse to include the art of African Americans as a prism through which  class and gender as well as race could be explored.         

In the survey of six decades of art work by Samella Lewis, pieces that have not been seen in earlier publications are featured, giving us a fuller understanding of Lewis’ art and process.  The exhibition and book also present works by artists that Lewis has collected and mentored. The illustrations are wonderful to savor and the design of the hardcover book is quite handsome, a visual delight.

Thankfully, more attention is now being given to Samella Lewis and the trajectory and scope of  her career. Samella Lewis and the African American Experience and other recent exhibitions begin to supply the critical and scholarly analysis needed to confirm, unquestionably, her place among the top scholars and artists in America.

Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper focuses on the assemblage artist’s lesser-known works on paper, while including illustrations and discussions of some of his large, multi-media works.   This approach allows us to see the drawings within the broad spectrum of the artist’s primary work.

From different angles of vision, editor Bernard Harmon and the book’s contributors call into question categorizations of Dial as “other” ? outsider, vernacular, primitive, etc.  They all apparently admire Dial’s sprawling creativity and facility.   His art practices and his iconography, they concede, defy stylistic delimitations or categorization, and they conclude that the artist’s  work is  truly incomparable.

That Dial is seen from the perspective of art history and criticism, American studies, religious studies and also from the perspective of “fine” artist Juan Logan make it an engrossing publication.  Published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name at the Ackland Art Museum, UNC, Chapel Hill (March 30 – July 1, 2012),  this serious, scholarly, hardbound book on Dial’s drawings bring critical attention to the over-looked area of his drawings. 

The youngest of the three living artists discussed here, Jose Bedia has produced a tremendous body of work which is ably explored by the essayists in A Transcultural Pilgrim.  The essence and depth of the artist’s work is plumbed  by  the exhibition curators Judith Bettlehiem and Janet Catherine Berlo, along with the other essayists.

The scholarly essays show that Bedia is able to astutely intertwine African, Caribbean and American Indian iconographic, iconological programs and contemporary aesthetics into powerful expressive works. Their analysis confirms Bedia’s status as a major artist in the Americas.

Although separated by age, education, cultural background, art world contacts and exposure, Jose Bedia and Thornton Dial are kindred spirits.  Both are very much concerned with ideas and both have an empathy that translates their subjects into archetypal imagery.  And the edginess and bluntness of their imagery has a  powerfully affecting presence. Bedia’s journey, like Dial’s and the other artists mentioned here, is characterized by an incessant desire to explore and mediate objects – both natural and cultural—to create the new ontological constructs that one would expect from a transcultural pilgrim born in Cuba and initiated into the African Palo Monte religion, who lived in Angola, Mexico and on a U.S. Dakota Sioux reservation, and now makes his home in Miami Beach.

In Making Race Jacquelyn Francis examines how the term “race” and conceptions of race were used  in the New York city art world as critical strategies for encountering the art of Malvin Gray Johnson (black), Yaso Kounishi  (Asian) and Max Weber (Jewish).  Francis skillfully probes how his trio of artists interpreted American modernism, principally as it was manifested during the years between the great wars.

Expanding the discourse in area of scholarly investigation called “critical race art history, the book offers insightful and different angles of vision into how modernity and ethnic and cultural difference were manifested in America during the 1920s and ‘30s.  Francis’ groundbreaking, transracial reach has implications for more interdisciplinarity that would virtually eliminate the silos that have long existed between the work of African American scholars in the social sciences, the arts and humanities and that of other American scholars.

It is most regrettable that the author could not get permission from Max Weber’s estate to include images of his work in this well-researched and well-written publication that makes a significant contribution to 20th century American and African American art history and to cultural studies and ethnic studies. Making Race provides ample evidence that Jacquelyn Francis is one of the most important scholars in these disciplines.

In Exhibiting Blackness, Bridget Cooks calls attention to the differences between major museum exhibitions of African American art and its display at world fairs, colleges and universities, temporary museums and gallery shows.

Cooks does much to expand the scope of  the  historiography of  African American art by connecting  this art to aspects of the Euro-American art museum world and its practices, conceptions and ideas about the quality of African American art.   In so doing, she helps us to look at African American art from a different perspective, one that has not been explored before, certainly not in depth.

In discussing mainstream museum exhibitions, Cooks identifies two dominate curatorial strategies: the anthropological approach which foregrounds black racial  difference, and the corrective approach, which seeks to showcase the artists who have been left out of the museum, art world and public dialogue.

Cooks offers new perspectives on the exhibitions of African America art (and the curatorial practices that shaped them) at Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago, New York’s Metropolitan Museum and Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art.  Discussing the Los Angeles County Museum’s Two Centuries of Black American Art, curated by David C. Driskell as a catalytic core,  Cook traces its impact on other museums and its profound significance to the history of African American art.

She emphasizes the importance of exhibitions as pedagogical sites to promote “the values of art, cultures,  social movements, and national history” and points out that   because of  “this particular significance, the exhibition space has been a contested one for African Americans.”

These new books and book-length exhibition catalogues are significant, and in some instances, seminal,  additions to the field.  We should be mindful that as recent  as the early 1960s, scholarly publications on African American art were rare.  Only  James A. Porter’s Modern Negro Art (1943) and works by Alain L. Locke, such as The Negro in Art  and The New Negro  could be found on library shelves in the United States, even at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.   More books, scholarly catalogues and journal essays  have been published in the past few years than in  the first 6o years of the 20th century!   Still there are numerous senior, mid-career and emerging scholars and artist-authors whose important contributions are yet to be recognized in their fields.  The authors mentioned in this brief note have set a high standard of scholarship for others to follow.  Inherently, theirs is a virtual call for those who are engaged in researching and writing about African American and African Diasporic art to intensify their efforts.

Floyd Coleman is a former professor of art history at Howard University. He served as coordinator of the annual James A. Porter Colloquium on African American Art from 1990 to 2009.