Shaping Alternative Perspectives through Visual Art


Shantay Robinson 


For centuries Africa has been identified as a dark continent without civilized culture. Colonialism was enforced throughout the continent in order to civilize the people who already had their own systems in place.  While colonialism ravaged the continent, the artistry we view in museums today is evidence that African cultural practices are strong and engrained, so much so that the art exported from the continent can be found in museums the world over. So many of the items at large art institutions were stolen from African culture, and in museums, they are placed behind glass or on pedestals without researched information about how they were used. They are displayed outside of the cultural contexts for which they were created.  Many of the items created were done so to be used in ceremonial rituals, but without the context, the art loses its purpose. While there has been a move to return some of the items to their rightful owners, museum visitors the world over are able to witness the artistry of African makers without proper citation many of the times.

Although Western art has been greatly influenced by African art, by the likes of Cubism created by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, African art is still overlooked as primitive although the word is no longer acceptable for use. Before Cubism, western artists were interested in depicting forms in more realistic ways. The advent of cubism pushed the artistic conversation forward and greatly influenced modernism. Modernism discarded the figure in art and replaced it with interest in formal qualities like shape and color. Picasso’s first proto-cubist work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is a foray into replicating African art forms from which he developed more defined cubist works.

While Picasso may have heightened the awareness of African art, African Americans have been creating art since they arrived in America to work as slaves. They brought with them skills from their respective countries such as basket making and metalsmithing. While many of the enslaved artisans’ artworks could not be attributed to them, there is a recorded history of African American artwork dating back to the 19th century. The first African Americans who participated in western art culture dates back to Robert S. Duncanson who lived until 1872.  While there might have been relatively few black artists compared to contemporary times, there were a handful of black artists making a living by painting portraits of white abolitionists, landscapes, and scenes of black life.  A more famous African American artist, Henry Ossawa Tanner, was the first African American to gain international acclaim in the 1890s. Edmonia Lewis, a female artist born in 1844 also gained acclaim for her sculpture. There is a long history in African American art. There are centuries of artworks to look at and biographies to be explored. While I’m sure African and African American art students would be interested in this information, it’s important for all art students to realize Jean-Michel Basquiat did not exist in a vacuum. His legacy was founded on the backs of hundreds of artists, some whom worked without recognition or pay.

In the article “Library Service to the African American Art Community” Laura Graveline quotes Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. as he “attributes the lack of knowledge and visibility of African American art to, ‘willful ignorance…I believe there is an even worse root cause: a fundamental doubt or skepticism about Black people’s capacity to create great art’” (Graveline 5). It has long been thought that African and African Americans don’t have the capacity to participate in western art cultural spaces. While Jean-Michel Basquiat achieved fame in the 1980s, he was an anomaly. It wasn’t until the 1990s that “the other” was granted entrée into the western artworld. Even while the Harlem Renaissance produced some of the greatest African American artistic talent we have ever seen including the works of Romare Bearden, Aaron Douglas, and Hale Woodruff, they were not readily granted access into the larger art world. Creating spaces where students black, white, and other can learn of the contributions black people have made to the larger art historical cannon is imperative in shaping the knowledge of the artworld as a whole, gaining perspective on African American artistic customs, and understanding black culture. So much of the work created by historical African American artists are based in their experiences as black people in America. So, looking at the art of black artists is akin to understanding the social climate of the times they worked in. Understanding art is understanding the culture. In contemporary times, it is unacceptable for there not to be African American art history courses, not just for black students, but for all students looking to gain access into the artworld.

While many universities participate in sports and enroll thousands of black students on athletic tracks, I wondered if they were also providing the opportunity for them to learn about African and African American art history.  I decided to look at The Big Ten Conference Schools. The Big Ten Conference as the first Division I Collegiate athletic conference in the United States attracts thousands of black students every year. There are fourteen schools which comprise this athletic division. I decided to choose this conference because it is popular and has a large population of people invested in it because America loves sports. What I wanted to find out was, are they loving art as well? Are they allowing their students to fall in love with art the way they have the opportunity to fall in love with sports? My findings were pleasantly surprising, although more can be done.

Indiana University Bloomington, which offered fifteen courses in music at the time of my study, the most of all the schools, also offers the most visual art classes based in African American culture with a total of six. Courses offered in its African American and African Diaspora Studies program allow for cross-departmental studies in English, History, Religious Studies, and Sociology. Some of the courses in the visual arts include Black Women Artists, Visual Arts of the Harlem Renaissance, Art of the Civil Rights Movement, and Race Representation in American Art. University of Wisconsin-Madison also offers a range of African American visual arts courses with a total of five at the time of my search. Some of them include Introduction to Afro American Art, The Black Arts Movement, and Artistic/Cultural Images of Black Women.  Unfortunately, not all schools are as progressive as Indiana University Bloomington and University of Wisconsin. Based on my search University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, University of Minnesota Twin Cities, University of Michigan, Michigan State University, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Penn State University, Purdue University and Rutgers University did not offer any courses in African American visual art at the time of my study.

Graveline notes that “…American society seems unwilling to recognize African American contributions to the fine arts. However, contributions in other cultural areas, such as music and performance, have been recognized more quickly” (5). While African Americans have been creating artworks from the time they arrived on American soil, the visual arts are often overlooked. Even in African America cultural traditions, the visual arts come secondary to literature, music, and theatre. Although some of the country’s greatest visual artists emerged from the Harlem Renaissance the most taught and memorable names belong to those who created literature and music. So, carrying on the tradition most of the African American studies departments continue to have more classes about hip hop and black literature than they do visual art. In her article, Graveline cites Curator Emerita of twentieth century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lowery Stokes Sims, in seeing the lack of attention to African American art scholarship as economic issue (7). Graveline goes on to note that “[Sims] believes that the art establishment, mirroring the American economy as a whole, is still unwilling to admit minority artists into full economic participation in the art world” (7).

Because African American artists are only recently receiving credit for their work on a massive scale due to the record-breaking auction sale of contemporary artist Kerry James Marshall’s work, perhaps universities and colleges will see that there is history in this artistic vein as well. As the presence of African Americans in the mainstream artworld normalizes, there are bound to be more students demanding classes in this subject. Echoing the sentiment of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who I quoted earlier in the paper, this willful ignorance and skepticism placed on blackness, assuming that African and African Americans are not able to create masterful art to compete or surpass great masters is dangerous. Until we let go of those ways of thinking about black potential, we cannot see what is right in front of us – that for centuries, at least in America, black people have and continue to create artworks with relative complexity to white artists or artists of any color. Unless we do that, students will not emerge from classes with the courage to create their own brands of art. When we do allow for there to be more artistic voices represented, those who know the history of the origins of African American art will understand they too have a historical tradition in the visual arts, and they will feel like their voices are also valid. While the black populations at these schools seem to be relatively small, the schools are not only serving the black community. African American visual art classes, if made available, are available to everyone.

A version of this essay was presented at New York African Studies 2019 Conference

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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While  receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.

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