The Struggles Away or Towards This Peace

Amiri Baraka’s Life in Visual Art

Juliette Harris

Amina and Amiri Baraka at the opening of Jus' Jass, Correlations of Painting and Afro-American Classical Music, 1983, Kenkeleba House. Photo: Kenkeleba House
Amiri Baraka and Victor Davson at Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art, September 6, 2013. Photo: Akintola HanifThis chronicle of Amiri Baraka’s life in visual art does not successively refer to him by his given name and changing names — Everett LeRoi Jones, LeRoi Jones, Imamu Amear Baraka, Imamu Amiri Baraka and Amiri Baraka.  Instead, for reasons relating to clarity, style and deadlines), we refer to him throughout by his final name, Amiri Baraka.

Known primarily as a writer and political activist, Amiri Baraka (October 7, 1934-January 9, 2014) was extensively involved with visual arts throughout his life.  He drew comics as a child, painted as a teen, befriended and supported numerous artists, wrote visual arts criticism and showed his colored drawings and mixed media works in solo and group exhibitions. 

Amiri Baraka, The Omen, c. 2000, mixed media on paper, 11 x 9.Baraka described a passionate art practice to M. Hanks Gallery director Eric Hanks who noted it in a catalogue entry for the gallery’s 2008 Masterpieces of African American Art group show that included Baraka’s work: My practice is long standing, such as it is, I draw on everything that cannot get away safely,” (Baraka) said. “But in the last decade or so, since escaping the university gig, I have had more time to get down further into the craft of it.”

Baraka’s “practice” appears to be un-self-critical and obsessive.  He made many hundreds, maybe thousands, of sketches and drawings; some appear intently executed; others, dashed off.  He didn’t pick and chose among them – this one’s more finished and sophisticated; this one’s more unrealized and chicken scratch.  He shared his outpouring of art as all equally worthy like the parent of many children (which he also was) would view differently abled offspring as equally commendable in their own ways.  

His openness in sharing his art indicates a lack of ego ambition about it, a way of saying, These are traces of me in a moment — my passions, my concerns, my spontaneous spirit. In this way, the work can be viewed as a revealing window into the mind and Amiri Baraka, Imperialism Heads Home. Camille Billops Collection ©Amiri Baraka estate  personality of a great, and now historical, figure. 

Amiri Baraka, The Devil's Mustache, 2003.Camille Billops Collection ©Amiri Baraka estate Baraka, himself, conceived of his work as similar to that of self-trained southern black artists and the question of the relative art worthiness of "vernacular" and "fine" types of art is a question he addressed in his essay on artist Thornton Dial that is cited below.

In addition to creating and writing about visual art, Amiri Baraka's visual arts experience encompassed close friendships with visual artists. They included painters William A. White, who he met in the air force; Ed Clark, who he met on a group trip to Cuba in 1960; Joe Overstreet, Larry Rivers, Vincent Smith, Bob Thompson and Walter Williams who he knew in Greenwich Village during the late 1950s-early ‘60s.

Baraka’s later art friends included ceramicist/dealer Camille Billops; multimedia artist/art center director Victor Davson who facilitated the Baraka-Billops hook-up and whose association with Baraka extended to the final months of Baraka’s life; southern self-trained assemblage artist Thornton Dial; painter/installation artist Ben Jones, and collagist/activist Theodore Harris.

Amiri Baraka, A Red Blood. Camille Billops Collection. ©Amiri Baraka estateScattered bits of information provide a sketchy record of Amiri Baraka’s early art interest.  The January 9, 2014 New York Times article remembering Baraka stated that, as a youngster, he studied drawing andAmiri Baraka, Newark Public Schools. Camille Billops Collection. ©Amiri Baraka estate painting in addition to taking music lessons. And biographer Theodore Hudson (From Leroi Jones to Amiri Baraka) says that in the seventh grade, Baraka produced a comic strip, “The Crime Wave.”  Hudson quotes a bio in which Baraka said, “I had started trying to be literary in grammar school w/heavy comic strips.” 

Camile Billops says that she heard that Baraka went to art school and that he viewed his drawings as intentionally “primitive.”

“Victor Davson got me to go a Baraka’s house and Baraka is so strange.” Camille Billops recalled the “strange” aspect in an admiring, amused tone as she remembered Baraka on January 10, 2014. 

Her two or three visits to Baraka’s house were like “being in Zion, eating peanuts,” Billops says — awe-inspiring and entertaining because letters from Langston Hughes and Allen Ginsberg on the walls and other artifacts surrounded Baraka who was amusing and animated.

“He wasn’t going to give you anything (on consignment) — you had to come with your money.” She also recalls,  “he was always gracious.” 

Baraka “brings a box of his art. It looks like junk but when you really look, whoa!,” she says.  “And when you framed it, it was fabulous, fabulous, fabulous.”

Amiri Baraka, Spade, Camille Billops Collection. ©Amiri Baraka estateAmiri Baraka, Complex Apts., Camille Billops Collection. ©Amiri Baraka estateCamille Billops acquired 50 or 60 drawings and multimedia works from Amiri Baraka and offered some of them at the National Black Fine Art Show held in New York from 1997 to 2010.

She was pleased to see a multi-generational interest in Baraka’s art work at the show.  “Young people would ask, ‘Can I buy one?’   A 19-year-old said, ‘I don’t have money but would $100 work for me?’ ”

Billops recalls another memorable acquisition when an “old white hippie” visited her loft.  “I have to have me a Baraka,” she recalled him saying.  “I really loved him,” he explained.  “Can you give me a little deal?”

“Yeah, I can give you a little deal,” Camille Billops chuckled as she recalled her reply.

Among the 21 Baraka pieces that Billops retained is The Soloist which contains a poem “about heading out to space," she says.  “When I look at it, I always cry.”

She also has a photo of Baraka looking at one of his drawings in her studio.

Amiri Baraka, The Soloist. Camille Billops Collection. ©Amiri Baraka estate“It was an exciting time dealing with Baraka’s work," Billops says. “He was mystical, crazy, insane, heroic.”Amiri Baraka, Razor. Camille Billops Collection. ©Amiri Baraka estate

He was always that way, or at least he says he was.

A brilliant student in high school, Baraka shone from both sides of his brain but lacked adequate outlets for his energies. Recalling that dilemma in an interview published in the Aug. 23, 1964 San Francisco Chronicle, Baraka said: “When I was in high school, I used to drink a lot of wine, throw bottles around, walk down the street dressed in women’s clothes just because I couldn’t find anything to do to satisfy myself. Neither sex, nor whiskey, nor drugs would do it….If you really have something to do and really want to do it, you use up all that energy and violence in making sure you do it right." (The San Francisco Chronicle interview is quoted in Theodore Hudson’s book, From Leroi Jones to Amiri Baraka.) While Baraka’s olympian energies and talents eventually would break free through multiple forms of art and political activism, visual art, in particular, would provide an always ready outlet.

Graduating early from high school, Baraka chose a science scholarship to Rutgers from among several scholarship offers but felt like an outsider there and transferred to Howard University to pursue a pre-med/chemistry degree. In the early 1950s, university science instruction was mostly rote, not engaging to an intellect like Baraka’s which was equally creative/artistic and scientific/quantitative.

In The Autobiography of Leroi Jones, Baraka says that as a failing chemistry major at Howard, he painted big 3-D paintings of a friend’s “high society” girl friends in his dorm room and put curtains on paintings “so they could be drawn back dramatically to reveal the painter’s madness.”  Baraka took a bit of poetic license in his memoir and this recollection may be an elaboration but, whatever the case, it does indicate his interest in painting at this time. 

Amiri Baraka (title not legible) Camille Billops Collection. ©Amiri Baraka estateBaraka thought of himself as painter after flunking out of college and joining the air force. He was able to read and write a lot in the air force but not to paint so he began to think of himself as a writer.

In the air force, Baraka met William White, his first friend who would become an artist. When he got out the service, White enrolled in the art program at Howard University, encouraged to do so by Baraka. Although Baraka had rebelled against what he perceived as the university’s petit bourgeois culture, he’d made good friends on “the hill,” enjoyed a bohemian style of college life, and admired arts and humanities professors like Sterling Brown and Nathan Wright who also did not conform to the institutional culture.

Discharged from the Air Force in 1957, Baraka moved to Greenwich Village and onto the avant garde scene just as "bohemian" was becoming "beatnik."  
 

His artist friend Vincent Smith was there as a legitimate bohemian, Baraka said his autobiography, not as middle-class kid on the scene for kicks, and he describes Smith’s painting as “original and fresh” yet connected to a traditional African American ethos.

Frank O'Hara (1926-1966) Photo Mario Schifano/Wikipedia CommonsAs Baraka moved deeper into the beat scene, he and Frank O’Hara became tight. They both were visual art lovers and poets.  O’Hara was a curator at MoMA, an art critic and collector of paintings by Larry Rivers, Grace Larry Rivers (1923-2002). Photo: Wikipedia CommonsHartigan, Joan Mitchell and Dekooning and others.  In running with O’Hara and in frequenting the Cedar Tavern, Baraka met the entire New York visual arts avant garde including Franz Kline whose drunken, tortured, genius persona he liked to imitate.  Soon Baraka was at the nexus of over-lapping, visual arts, literary and music realms, working and partying with many other, now-celebrated figures, including Allen Ginsberg and John Cage.

In 1964, Larry Rivers sketched a study portrait of Baraka for the poster announcing Baraka’s one-act plays, “The Toilet” and “The Slave.”  

Baraka’s visual artist friends also included Ted Joans, a painter, poet and pioneering performance artist (socialites could rent-a-beatnik – Joans – to attend their parties).

Ted Joans had an art gallery, Galerie Fantastique, on St. Marks Place where, as Baraka recalls in an on-line interview with Lamont B. Steptoe, Joans “introduced the works of this painter, REGGIN NAM, who was his own work — nigger man spelled backwards!”   

Ted Joans (1928-2003). Photo: Wikipedia CommonsAlthough Ted Joans is not generally well known, he is a legendary figure in the history of beatitude, jazz culture (he wrote jazz-cadenced poetry), and latter day surrealism.  Joans started the “Bird Lives” graffiti tagging in New York after Charlie Parker’s death, traveled to Europe where he met Andre Breton, Salvador Dali and other surrealists. Joans visual art included what he called “action painting” and collages in which the subject were cut out of the picture.

Baraka was particularly close to Bob Thompson, a young, African American artist from Louisville who turned his fascination with traditional European art into colorful dreamscapes peopled with beasts, jazz musicians and interracial lovers.  “Bob Thompson was one of the many painters who regularly ‘went to study’ the music of various jazz artists at the Five Spot,” writes art historian Judith Wilson in the Bob Thompson exhibition catalogue.  “Located at Fifth Street and Cooper Square, the club sat opposite the residence of his friend and fellow jazz maven LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka).”  

In addition to their devotion to jazz, Bob Thompson and Amiri Baraka shared heroin.  Baraka describes shooting up with Thompson and bonding through that shared nod in his autobiography.  Unlike Thompson, Baraka managed to mostly keep the monkey off his back by chipping at it.

The buddies also exchanged creative works – Thompson drew and painted Baraka and Baraka wrote poems for Thompson.

Bob Thompson drawing, Leroi & Barbara at the Cedar, 1960. Kenkeleba House collection from Carol Plenda. Repro permission courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NYThe 1960 Thompson drawing shown here, Leroi & Barbara in the Cedar, was donated to Kenkeleba Gallery by Elaine Plenda, sister of the late Carol Thompson, Bob Thompson’s wife.

Elaine Plenda also inherited five poems written for Bob Thompson by Baraka.  They were typed on a manual typewriter and had a typed, cover sheet with the title “The Parade (5 themes for Robert Thompson)” over this note:

                Bob
                   these are the poems I spoke of.  I got
                   
                them as visual.      
                                 
                                So

                 I throw them 
                                    on
                                      YOU.
                                         (Blam

                                            best.

                                                roi

At the bottom of the cover sheet he wrote:

LeRoi Jones

402 W.20th St.

NYC 11, NY.

Elaine Plenda thinks Baraka wrote the poems and gave them to Thompson around 1960. 

She last saw Baraka in April 2007 at a book reading at Community College of NY.  When Baraka signed her book, she mentioned the five poems he wrote for Bob Thompson and asked if he’d like them and also a typed Leroi Jones, The Dutchman, 1964manuscript of his play "The Dutchman." Baraka did.  She sent the papers to him and received this e-mail reply:  "Many thanks for these never remembered to me valuable papers.  Good to see you.  Take care, Amiri B (roi)"

One of Bob Thompson’s most well-known works is the 1964 oil painting, LeRoi Jones and His Family, now in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Baraka and his first wife, Hettie Cohen Jones, are shown in this painting and their two children, Kellie and Lisa, are implied.  The gnome-like figure that appears to be a child is a figure from the original painting that Thompson otherwise painted over, says Kellie Jones, who, as a curator and art historian, is continuing a family legacy of visual arts appreciation and achievement.

The title that Kellie Jones gave her 2011 book, EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art refers to her own life and work but it also aptly describes her father, who, in later life, wrote about visual art as well as created it.

Amiri Baraka’s “eyemindedness” fed his visual imagination and enriched his expository writing, making it vividly graphic.  For example, he verbally paints Chagall-like imagery in recalling his 22-year-old self aspiring to artistic greatness in hanging around Greenwich Village coffee houses with three like-minded friends “plotting (their) rise to the tops of buildings.”

William A. White (1936-1969). Photo: Dorothy White collectionBy 1962-63, William White (the artist Baraka met in the air force), had graduated from the Howard University art program and he and his partner Dorothy were living around the corner from Baraka and Hettie in the Village.  

How I Became Hettie Jones book coverDorothy White and Hettie Jones became close as women friends and continue to be.  Dorothy cultivated her own interest in art, became a curator and continues to organize art exhibitions.  In her How I Became Hettie Jones autobiography, Jones recalls that Dorothy had natural hair when they first met in 1959 – a pioneering look, several years before the style became familiar as the “afro.”  

Providing a glimpse of how Baraka kept a hand in art during this time, Hettie Jones says that he painted a board with Chinese characters that said “Every day is a good day.” The board was mounted in an arts space and then in their kitchen.

The Whites, Baraka and Hettie Jones knew other African American visual artists in the Village including Mildred Thompson and Jack Whitten.

Like a number of his associates in the East Village, White struggled with drug addiction and to snatch him from the clutches of that beast, Dorothy arranged their move to Brooklyn, where he recovered completely and continued to work.  He died in 1969 after being jumped while walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. Back in the East Village, William White was represented in The Search for Freedom: African American American Abstract Painting 1945-1975 exhibition at Kenkeleba House in 1991.Dorothy White today.  Photo: Dorothy White collection

William A. White, untitled, 1964. Collection Dorothy WhiteBaraka nimbly navigated his life and work with black and white artists for a while. But other forces were pushing on him.  He was concerned by his intimate relations with white people and their benefit from his talents at a time when he was also in vanguard of the black liberation movement. Some inter-married black male artists at that time understood, and even were concerned about what became known as “the black male-(black) female” problem and other consequences of their social and cultural assimilation. But they also were committed to their partners and children. Others felt a deep bond with their partners and children but fled anyway.  Baraka was in the latter group.  Baraka’s sometimes anguished (according to description in How I Became...) but resolute gravitation away from Hettie Jones became decisive on February 21, 1965 when Malcolm X was assassinated. 

When Baraka moved to Harlem in March 1965, many relationships ended but one that continued was his friendship with the painter Joe Overstreet. In the Village, Overstreet and Baraka had “played cards, hung out,” says Corrine Jennings, Overstreet’s partner in life and in running Kenkeleba House.  

Joe Overstreet with painting of Malcolm X, c. 1965, oil on canvas. Photo: Kenkeleba House collectionUptown, Overstreet and Baraka collaborated on projects for the community organization that Baraka founded in 1964, Black Arts Repertory Theater and School (BARTS).Overstreet was particularly instrumental to the effort because he was a maker who could build and repair things, as well as create things.  He is shown here with a painting of Malcolm X that he showed at BARTS. Jennings says the painting "used to be in Baraka's collection."

BARTS sponsored musical programs with jazz musicians such as Sun Ra and Albert Ayler that were not well attended.  So, says Jennings, “Joe had the idea to take the music to the streets.  He built a platform that could be put on a truck” – an idea that was the genesis of the jazzmobile that roved Harlem in the mid-to-late ‘60s.  

Baraka describes Joe Overstreet’s platforms as banquet tables held together with clamps and says these platforms also were used to exhibit visual art.  In his autobiography Baraka also recalls the artist’s help in mounting the mobile art shows and other assistance:  “Overstreet designed the easels we used to show the paintings and he brought artists with him to oversee and contribute to the shows.” Baraka also said that Overstreet and Betty Blayton headed the graphics program at Black Arts and, in a statement published on line, said that Overstreet helped him with renovating the building that housed the Spirit House community center he founded a few months later in Newark:  (Baraka’s “Black Mass” with Sun Ra) “was recorded in The Spirit House, on the first floor theater we had created by tearing down the walls of my rented one-family house, just as we had done at The Black Arts. Painter Joe Overstreet came over and we almost tore the house down with our remodeling.”

Corrine Jennings says that in reflecting on the transition of his old friend, Joe Overstreet said that Baraka helped him to think critically and noted that this was probably instrumental in leading him, in 1974, to found Kenkeleba House.As a non-profit gallery for artists whose work is generally not shown in commercial galleries and in providing affordable living and working spaces to artists, Kenkeleba fits the community service model that Baraka and Overstreet had built in Harlem and Newark.

Hettie Jones says that “the black artists who stayed downtown after (Baraka) left eventually put the old places to new uses: the painter Joe Overstreet, with his wife Corrine Jennings, runs Kenkeleba House gallery in the Mobilization building where I worked; their bedroom was my office.”

William and Dorothy White also continued their friendship with Baraka when he moved to Harlem.  William White designed the Black Arts banner and Dorothy taught at the school.Baraka leads the Black Arts parade down 125th St toward BARTS on 130th St. He has been called the father of the black arts movement. Photo: Liberator 5.6 [June 1965], 27)

During this period Baraka also knew the soon-to-be conceptual artist David Hammons whose work at the time reflected the black arts movement aesthetic.

Seeded with money that Baraka made from his plays produced downtown and sustained by federal funds made through a Harlem community action program, Black Arts Repertory took visual art, poetry, drama and music directly to the people through programs at the center and on numerous streets corners. Folks were literally “dancing in the streets” like the Martha and the Vandellas song said.  But when the federal funds ran out at the end of the summer and the simmering brew of staff personalities, some of whom Baraka describes as sociopathic, boiled over, Baraka had to cut loose and move on.

After moving to Newark in December 1965, Baraka founded Spirit House which promoted the arts and community service and met Sylvia Robinson, founder of Newark’s Loft, a contemporary art space.

Joining forces with Robinson who became Amina Baraka, his partner, they developed 24 hour childcare, an African free school, family counseling and other programs at Spirit House.  For many years and through Fall 2013, they collaborated on numerous projects to unify, defend, entertain and edify the community.  


Cover of Charles Johnson book inspired by Amiri BarakaIn January 1968, Amiri Baraka gave a reading at Southern Illinois University which greatly influenced Charles Johnson, a journalism major at who enjoyed drawing comics.   Many years later, in an interview for the Passing the Three Gates book, Johnson, who became a philosopher and award-winning author, described the impact that Baraka had on his drawing practice:   

(Baraka) was flanked by two fierce-looking bodyguards. During the Q&A, he took no questions from members of the white audience. He told the black students to bring their talents back to the black community. I left the Charles Johnson teaching cartoon illustration on Charlie's Pad, 1970auditorium in a daze, walking back in the rain to my dormitory room, my head suddenly full of ideas for how to shift my work as a cartoonist to black history and culture. I spent a full week drawing, day and night, cutting my classes. I went through two bottles of India ink, and after a week of drawings bursting out of me, I had my first book, Black Humor, which was published in Chicago by the Johnson Publishing Company(the Ebony and Jet people)in 1970. I've always said that I owe Baraka that book.

By 1974, having started a second family and adopted Marxism, Amiri Baraka was living out one of his favorite sayings: “The only constant is change.”

Over the years, Amiri and Amina Baraka developed a close affiliation with Victor Davson, director of Aljira a Center for Contemporary Art in Newark. Aljira presented the first solo exhibition of Baraka’s art work in 1999. Until the final months of his life, Baraka would walk by to take a look at the exhibitions there. 

In recalling his association with Baraka for this article, Victor Davson provided background context:

Flyer for program held in association with Baraka's 1999 art exhibition at Aljira.I was about 25 years-old when Blues People was published in 1963 and I felt it was totally above my head. Amiri was in his late 20s when he wrote it. I was amazed by his insight into the music and the black world.Amiri Baraka, Heel. Camille Billops Collection. ©Amiri Baraka estate

When I met Amiri when I moved to Newark in 1984, he was electric. He had the ability to shock you, to startle you, with this command of the language. That became the basis of our relationship — language. Every time we encountered each other, it was about language. It was pun to hang out with him. We would pun around. 

In the language, in the art, the work that he did was always this information about his experience as a human being and as a black man in America. That's what informed his art. 

Aljira gave Amiri a show in 1999. We called it "Word Pictures." The exhibit received a major review in the Star-Ledger as his first formal major show of his visual art. In an interview with critic Dan Bischoff, Amiri talked about being given permission to make art by Thornton Dial. Dial is an outsider artist and was the subject of an essay by Amiri in a catalogue called "Image of the Tiger."

Camille Billups was prompted by the scholar Arnold Rampersad to call me to arrange for her to buy some Barakas. I was the broker. We went to Amiri's house and he came downstairs with two shopping bags. Some of the work was on the paper from wire hangers, scraps, and invitations. He would draw on anything. That is what untrained outsider artists do. They create on anything. Thornton Dial is an important antecedent. Together, Camille and I went through Amiri's visual work and she bought some of it. Aljira also presented a poetry reading as part of the programming for Amiri's "Word Pictures" exhibit.

William Arnett, an Atlanta-based art researcher, collector and curator, elaborated on the Thornton Dial connection that Victor Davson cited.

The friendship of Amiri Baraka and William Arnett began in 1992 when was working on a book published in conjunction with the Image of the Tiger exhibition of Thornton Dial’s work in New York at the New Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of American Folk Art.  Conferring with the book’s publisher, Paul Gottlieb of Harry N. Abrams, about an essayist, Arnett recommended Amiri Baraka.   

On a visit to Atlanta not long before, Baraka had called Arnett because he knew about Arnett’s support of Southern black vernacular artists.  But that’s all Arnett knew about Baraka’s visual art interest.   However, based on what he did know about Baraka’s writing and political activism, he thought Baraka would be an astute interpreter of Dial’s work.   The tiger in the exhibition title and in Dial’s large, colorful abstractions was a philosophical and visual metaphor for black peoples struggle in various kinds of jungles. 

Amiri Baraka, Jane Fonda and William Arnett in Alabama. Photo: Matt ArnettWorking together on Image of the Tiger, Arnett and Baraka became fast friends and saw each other about 20 times in Atlanta, Newark, at many venues for exhibitions of work from Arnett’s collections, when Baraka was a guest lecturer, and on trips the two took to visit artists in Alabama and elsewhere.  

Baraka, a hip black Northerner and Arnett, a down-to-earth, white Southerner found common bond for several reasons.  They both felt an obligation to promote public recognition of the profound genius residing within the black Southern population. Both were outspoken opponents of what they believed was an exclusionary system based upon racial and educational biases and commercial imperatives.  Both were keenly interested in assisting in the creation of a new definition of “modern art,” one providing an equal opportunity for recognition of art and artists based upon quality and historical realities. Also says Arnett, they “engaged in playfully-serious arguments with each other about which one had been lied about the most.”

William Arnett is co-author and publisher of Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South, a two-volume book with over 1800 illustrations, and Thornton Dial in the 2lst Century, also a massive book, co-published with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Baraka was among the major essay contributors to these books.  Arnett was also the organizer of the major exhibitions and books of Gee’s Bend quilts that travelled to more than 20 museums around the country. 

Tinwood Books, a company founded by Jane Fonda and Arnett, published six groundbreaking books about what was then an under-recognized tradition of African American art in the South.

Amiri Baraka in Alabama. Photo: Matt ArnettArnett tells colorful stories about his association with Baraka.   For example, when they were participating in a public program held during the Gee’s Bend exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum, Baraka was asked about the role of God in the quilt makers’ work.  Arnett says Baraka replied, “Well I don’t know much about God.  Don’t know if God’s a ‘he,’ a ‘she,’ or an ‘it.’  But I hope that when we find out, God won’t be a corporation.”

Arnett also recalls how Baraka defended him during the controversial coverage of Arnett’s support of black artists by the CBS program, “60 Minutes.” The show charged that Arnett controlled the artists and their market, and, says Arnett, “implied that Dial was a simple-minded old black man incapable of making great art.”  (That coverage and Arnett’s response is documented on the Web.)  Arnett says Baraka called 60 Minutes and informed them that their episode was “a load of BS designed to discredit Dial and Arnett on the day of the opening of Dial’s first New York exhibition.” The person who answered the phone asked Baraka to hold, and another voice came on the line. Baraka repeated his complaint, this time with more anger, having been put on hold for more than a minute.

“And who is this?” asked the voice.” “My name is Baraka,” he said.

“Amiri?” the voice responded. It was Baraka’s old friend Mike Wallace, who apologized for the piece and claimed to have no involvement with it.

Arnett believes that “blacks enslaved in the South, deprived of the right to speak openly or exhibit independent thoughts and ideas, developed without any guidance or precedents a secret language that consisted of, among manyAmiri Baraka, Jane Fonda, Thornton Dial and William Arnett in Gee's Bend, Alabama. Photo: Matt Arnett other things, music and visual arts. The music evolved, mutated, was taken out of the region, and became the most popular, influential, and arguably the most important music in the history of our planet -- gospel, blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, and on and on. The flip side, the visual arts, stayed hidden, and was so far ahead of the mainstream learning curve that even when it was seen it was not understood or appreciated. It is just beginning to get seen. It is destined ? I better say ‘in my opinion’ ? to become as recognized and important as its sibling, the music.”

Arnett says that when people tried to turn him against Baraka, alleging that Baraka was anti-Semitic, he prefaced his defense of Baraka by stating that he (Arnett) himself is “a Jew who understands anti-Semitism, and Baraka is anti-ignorance, bigotry, unregulated capitalism, discrimination in its many forms, political and religious corruption, but he was not against Jews unless they deserved his disapproval."   

When Baraka transitioned, Arnett says he received phone calls from several white friends who sympathized with him.  “I know how much you miss him” was the gist of their calls.

Pointing out Baraka’s broad array of talents, Arnett says that he admired his friend’s scholarship and acumen as an art historian and critic. 

“We were once visiting Baraka with artist/musician Lonnie Holley and Baraka informed us that it was his association with artists like Holley and Thornton Dial that prompted him to return to making visual art. Baraka had as much knowledge about art history, and sensitivity to it, to have been a great scholar, historian and critic should he have chosen that path. He also could have been one of America’s greatest intellectual and hip stand-up comedians. And if he had been a bantam-weight boxer he would have wanted to fight only heavyweights.”

Book cover, Thornton Dial in the 21st Century, 2006.In 2005 Amiri Baraka contributed the essay “Revolutionary Traditional Art from the Cultural Commonwealth of Afro-America" to the book published in conjunction with the Thornton Dial in the 21st Century exhibition organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Tinwood Alliance.

Atlanta art advisor Jerry Thomas saw the long, unedited manuscript of the essay and recalls thinking that Baraka was  blowin’ in the piece like jazz musicians do – pulling out all of the stops and drawing from every relevant thing in his life leading up to that writing performance – his love of language, art, history, jazz and blues and also his intolerance of all that had held and would continue to hold back talents like Dial's.

In this essay, in addition to taking on the critic’s usual task and interpreting symbolism and referring to materials, “iconography,” style, craft and workmanship of this artist emerging from “traditions forged from the intense heat of hardship,” Baraka  champions the “art” worthiness and sophistication of southern black vernacular art.

He also predicts that if this art were brought en masse onto the art market, it would upset its “goofy” price structure and its strong presence would threaten the dominance of work by trained artists: “And if they find out the they art ain’t no better than this art, then what is they better at? And there go the neighborhood.”

In 1990, regarding “they art” and “this art,” art historian/curator Lowery Sims looked forward to the day that the two could be shown together on a equitable basis: “These (black self-trained) artists have claimed a wide range of artistic options for themselves and will not be hemmed in by the limitations of the art world in dealing with them,” she said in the catalogue essay for the 1990 Next Generation: Southern Black Aesthetic exhibition

“And if we are successful,” she continued, “with any luck we will not have to do this kind of exhibition in the year 2000.”  Amiri Baraka wasn’t holding his breath for that wish.

Amiri Baraka, Waiting, Camille Billops Collection. ©Amiri Baraka estateAmiri Baraka’s art was shown at M. Hanks Gallery in a 2003 solo exhibition and in the 2008 group exhibition, Masterpieces of African American Art. The Omen shown above was in the 2008 exhibition.  In the show’s Amiri Baraka, A 6. Camille Billops Collection. ©Amiri Baraka estatecatalogue entry for Baraka, Hanks said Baraka cited Thornton Dial and other self-taught artists Lonnie Holley, Joe Light and Hawkins Bolden as principle influences:

 “[I]n the last few years the major influence to push me even further into graphic arts including the use of any object, surface, structure to make art, has been close exposure to the so-called Black Southern Vernacular (the word means, literally SLAVE) or self-taught artists of the Black Belt South, the actual home land of the Afro American Nation.”

Amiri Baraka was “great to work with during the exhibition and reception at my gallery for his artwork,” recalls Hanks.  “At the reception he read some his poetry even though his manager had said he wouldn't.  He was very gracious.  Everyone in attendance was very appreciative.  His artwork was also well received.  Many didn't realize he also expressed his creativity in the visual arts.”

Other presentations of Baraka’s “word pictures,” “painted poems," drawings and collaborations with visual artists include:

Amiri Baraka, UN POCO LOW COUP, 2004, a chapbook of colored drawings and verse published by Ishmael Reed. The drawings are in various styles including a drawing reminiscent of Basquiat, Heaven, on page 18.  The entire book can be viewed on-line.  

Three Generations of Black Art: Amiri Baraka, Ben Jones and Mansa Mussa, a 2004, three-person exhibition at Art in the Atrium in Morristown NJ.

Book cover, Our Flesh of Flames, 2008.OUR FLESH OF FLAMES, 2008, a book of collages by Theodore A. Harris and captions by Amiri Baraka.

Amiri Baraka Drawings, 2009, an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum organized by Kellie Jones in celebration of her father’s 75th birthday and in conjunction with the Basquiat exhibition that she organized.

After his Amiri Baraka-inspired Black Humor book was published, Charles Johnson went to a distinguished career, writing books of fiction and philosophy and teaching in an endowed position.  Like Baraka, after retiring from university teaching, Johnson could devote more time to his first love, drawing.  His Bending Time, a book co-written with his daughter, was published in 2013. 

Charles Johnson and Amiri Baraka are among the artists of mulitple talents profiled in The Writer’s Brush: Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture by Writers.

Reflecting on Baraka and the synergies of the writer’s brush, Johnson says:

Amiri Baraka, Orders of Rudy the Red. Camille Billops Collection. ©Amiri Baraka estateFor many multi-talented artists with an imagination as robust as that of Amiri Baraka, creativity cannot be contained by a single form of expression. Despite our tendency to limit artists by labeling them and their talent (“He’s a novelist, she’s a poet”), placing them in little boxes for the sake of convenience, the creative spirit of original artists bursts and spills beyond the artificial categories we impose upon it, something we see vividly demonstrated in the wonderful book The Writer’s Brush: Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture by Writers.  

On one day that spirit may crystallize in literary forms such as the novel, poem, or short story; drawings, paintings or sculpture on another day; and on a third day the individual artist may bring forth works for the stage or screen, or documents of a scholarly nature. And despite its breath-taking diversity, this cornucopia of creativity is unified by the person, the humanity, of the artist himself or herself. What makes this protean work possible is the fact that the arts are inter-related, and the process of creating — across all the arts — is essentially one of problem-solving. While the tools and mediums in an artist’s oeuvre may differ during the course of a long career, the excitement of discovery, the necessity of revision, and trial and error, are commonalities in all the arts as well as the sciences.

The Amiri Baraka-Kellie Jones visual arts interaction continued with two major projects: Jones’collection of essays, EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art (2011), and Now Dig This!:Art and Black Los Angeles, Kellie Jones at the St. Louis Art Museum, 2008. Photo: Jean Paul Porno & courtesy St. Louis Art Museum1960-1980, a 2011-2012 exhibition curated by Jones.

In Eyeminded, Kellie Jones says her parents and their friends instilled in her a love of objects and the people who create art. Baraka expresses his 'eyedeology' in the essay he contributed to Eyeminded.

Eyeminded book coverNoting that the focus of much of the book is on conceptual art which he does not like, Baraka says the clarity of her writing about the art has helped him understand it.  (The book covers a spectrum of modern and contemporary art.)  Still he was no closer in affirming the art for art’s sake notion, maintaining that the “deepest measure of the use of the art” is its revolutionary utility.

Baraka singles out his daughter’s writing and curatorial work relating to the crudely and cruelly exploited South African woman Saartjie Baartman (AKA the Venus Hottentot) as examples of art and art criticism that reflects this “deepest” use.  He says the Baartman artists and critics show that “the entire social system with its economic and political packaging is designed so our bodies, minds and futures are inferior, actually by limitation and abuse or with the lies of racist description.”

In a Now Dig This! public program with Kellie Jones, Baraka continued to score points for his side of his on-going argument with the art establishment:

“How do you make something that speaks to the world? That’s the burden on abstraction. How to say what the world is?

You can go to a museum and not see any evidence of the species that inhabits this planet....

How do you express what’s happening in these people’s lives? How to break through the curtain of commercialism to make people see the world?”

The conversation between Amiri Baraka and Kellie Jones can be viewed on-line.

The Struggles Away or Towards This Peace

Amiri Baraka at the New Jersey Poet Laureate Family Reading program, Aljira, September 6, 2013. Photo: Akintola Hanif“The Struggles Away or Towards This Peace” is the title of the first chapter of Theodore Hudson’s biography, From Leroi Jones to Amiri Baraka.  It also seemed to be an apt title for this article.  (There was no citation for the phrase, “The Struggles Away or Towards This Peace,” but it is put in quotes in the book, indicating that it is a quote from Baraka, perhaps a line from a poem.)

It's easy to understand how moving away from peace means struggle.  But does going towards peace imply struggle?  Baraka would say, “yes,” because some body or system is always blocking the way.  But in sketching, drawing and coloring, Amiri Baraka found immediate expression for his relentless mentality — a form of meditation, and, in this way, a movement towards peace.

When viewed as an epitaph, this one falls short: "Amiri Baraka, Polarizing Poet and Playwright, Dies at 79."

With this headline on Jan. 9, 2014, the New York Times swiftly reported the news of Baraka's transition.  The writer was even-handed in describing what some saw as his divisiveness and what others saw as his achievement.

It’s the headline that misses a point that was evident in much of Baraka’s public life over the past four decades.  His mission during the second half of his life was to promote the dignity, well-being and cooperation of allAudience at the New Jersey Poet Laureate Family Reading program, Aljira, September 6, 2013. Photo: Akintola Hanif Audience at the New Jersey Poet Laureate Family Reading program, Aljira, September 5, 2013. Photo: Akintola Hanifpeople. A tribute to that vision was exemplified in the broad cross-section of people who participated in the New Jersey Poet Laureate Family Reading program with Amiri and Amina Baraka, Gerald Stern and Anne Marie Macari on September 6, 2013 at Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art in Newark. Hosted by Jim Haba, founder of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation Poetry Festival, the event honored Stern and Baraka, New Jersey's only state poet laureates.  

Word Pictures

"We must paint these falling buildings brilliant moorish arabesques of ankhs and riming love words of Egyptian light and reunderstand that death is not horrible but merely graduation if we are together into a new adventure, in our more spiritual forms."

—  from In Our Terribleness by Amiri Baraka (text) and Fundi (photographs), 1970.

 

 



Juliette Harris is the editor of the IRAAA.

Amiri Baraka, Ain't No Thing.Camille Billops Collection. ©Amiri Baraka estateSpecial thanks to: Camille Billops for painstaking shooting the Baraka art work  in her collection with what she describes as her “old Cannon” 35 mm camera, Corrine Jennings for some key leads and research assistance and fayemi shakur for various kinds of assistance including facilitating communication with the Amiri Baraka estate for reproduction permission for Baraka’s art work in this article.  Many thanks also to persons providing direct commentary for this article: William Arnett, Victor Davson, Eric Hanks, Corrine Jennings, Charles Johnson, Joe Overstreet, Elaine Plenda, Jerry Thomas and Dorothy Wright.  Darryl Randolph, our volunteer technical consultant and graphic designer provided the scans of the Baraka artwork: mucho thank you, Darryl!

This survey of Amiri Baraka’s life in visual art can continue to grow and be a permanent, on-line record.  To this end, we invite additional comments and images relating to this aspect of Baraka’s life for posting as addenda to this article.  Send comments and images to IRAAA+ editorial assistant Marlisa Sanders at marlisa.sanders@hamptonu.edu   The images will be cleared for reproduction permission before posting.Amiri Baraka, Looked Weird.Camille Billops Collection. ©Amiri Baraka estate

NOTES

While we have permission to reproduce the Amiri Baraka art work in this article, we have yet to determine whether the Baraka estate manager wants the copyright symbol in the captions for the images.  The copyright symbol was placed in the captions as a provisional measure until that determination is made.

Details for most source materials are hyper-linked within the text of the article.  Another helpful source was the Amiri Baraka entry in the African American Visual Artists Database.  This source contains some details not cited in this survey and provides a comprehensive record for readers wishing to know more.  http://www.aavad.com