The Aesthetics of the Black Arts Movement
By Shantay Robinson
Though the Black Arts Movement was not the first time Black people mobilized their art for empowerment, this movement was tied directly to the politics of the people and considered the sister of the Black Power Movement. In a 1968 article titled, “The Black Arts Movement”, preeminent movement scholar, Larry Neal, writes, “This movement is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. As such, it envisions an art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America.” While the attitude and style produced during the nexus of the Black Arts Movement can be found in the art of contemporary Black artists, there hasn’t been a lot of scholarship produced on the Black Arts Movement and many of the publications produced at that time are out of print. But what remains is the soul of the movement. In Damon Powell’s article, “The Aesthetics of Blackness: Theology, Aesthetics & Blackness in the Black Arts Movement Western Aesthetics and Blackness,” he identifies soul as, “…the penultimate form of recognition, affirmation and homage to the life, work, attitude, and artistry of the entire Black Arts and Black Power Movement.” C. Eric Lincoln defines soul as “…the essence of Blackness. It is the creative genius of the liberated man and woman who have come to terms with themselves and with their heritage. If Black is beautiful, it is soul that makes it so…”
But how to do we account for the soul in the art of the Black Arts Movement? How does soul factor into aesthetic principles? David Lionel Smith questions what the Black Aesthetic is. Smith cites Addison Gayle stating, “The Black Aesthetic, then, as conceived by this writer, is a corrective – a means of helping Black people out of the polluted mainstream of Americanism, and offering logical, reasoned arguments as to why he should not desire to join the ranks of a Norman Mailer or a William Styron.” According to several scholars, the Black aesthetic rejects Western aesthetics and is more concerned with uplifting Black people. Smith considers the differences between “Black Aesthetics” and “the Black Aesthetic.” He states the former leaves itself open to multiple possibilities, but the latter is speaking specifically of something that the art of the Black Arts Movement must do. Neal states, “A main tenet of Black Power is the necessity for Black people to define the world in their own terms. The Black artist has made the same point in the context of aesthetics…The Black artist takes this to mean that his primary duty is to speak to the spiritual and cultural needs of Black people.”
In an article titled, “The Social Background of the Black Arts Movement,” Neal states, “The Black Arts Theater came up to Harlem the spring after Malcolm’s assassination.” The Black Arts Theater was the birthchild of Amiri Baraka. The history of the Black Arts Movement is contentious in that, according to Kim McMillon in her article, “Black Feminism, The Ancestors Speak and the Women of the Black Arts Movement,” some see the movement as a natural extension of the Harlem Renaissance. Most see the movement forming with Amiri Baraka’s (LeRoi Jones) exodus from Downtown to Harlem. She writes, “In March 1965 following the 21 February assassination of Malcolm X, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) moved from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, uptown to Harlem, an exodus considered the symbolic birth of the Black Arts movement.” McMillon challenges the symbolic move with a feminist reading that could possibly look at the Black Art Movement starting with Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun in 1959. Though the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 70s was predominantly led by men, women like Sonia Sanchez and Baraka’s wife, Amina Baraka, were women voices that played pivotal roles in shaping the soul of the movement.
Neal states, “The Black Arts and Black Power concepts both relate broadly to the Afro-American’s desire for self-determination and nationhood. Both concepts are nationalistic. One is concerned with the relationship between art and politics; the other with the art of politics.” Because the mission of the Black Arts Movement is Black liberation, the artists of the movement made their work accessible to the people through the creation of broadsides, chapbooks and posters that people could afford. Art is often exclusive to monied populations, but the Black Arts Movement made art available to those commonly unable to afford high priced art. This strategy widened the audience for the work and essentially empowered more people with their messages of Black liberation. Not only was the work made for common folk, it was about common folk. Artists, at the time, stayed abreast of what was happening on the ground and with the people, to relate to them. Smith writes, “…it demands that the critic be familiar with the common experiences of Black people – or more precisely, that the critic share the kind of knowledge that such an audience would likely possess.” The artists of the movement knew they could not achieve Black liberation without the whole nation, so they kept their ears to the streets. They used the language, the rhythms, and appealed to the soul of the people. Neal writes the question was always, “Where are the people, Brother?” The people, at the time, were into James Brown, so the movement got into James Brown.
While the Black Arts Movement is known primarily for its literature, the visual arts also were shaped in ways that gave power to Black people. Established in 1967 on the Southside of Chicago by Jeff Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrell, Jae Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu, and Gerald Williams, AfriCOBRA created one of the most celebrated murals of Black culture titled, The Wall of Respect. The collective was concerned with developing a Black aesthetic by traveling to Africa and studying African art. AfriCOBRA aimed to represent Black pride, Black self-determination, and support Black people of the African Diaspora. These artists upheld the visual arts of the movement and its work for Black liberation.
Though the movement is more than 50 years old, some of these artists are still working today. Carolyn Lawrence, Dindga McCannon, Lev T. Mills, Jae Jarrell, and Wadsworth Jarrell all created art that would educate the people and give them power during this period. Carolyn Lawrence’s work Uphold Your Men (1971) and Black Children Keep Your Spirits Free (1972) is representative of the role of women in the age of Black power. Uphold Your Men is a screen print, a medium used at the time to promote accessibility of the art. The work was featured in We Wanted a Revolution: Radical Black Women 1965-85 at the Brooklyn Museum. Dindga McCannon created warrior women she could look to since there weren’t many she knew of in the 1960s and 70s. Her mixed-media construction, Revolutionary Sister, inspired by the statue of liberty, utilizes Black liberation colors red, green, and Black as it represents freedom for African American people. This piece was also featured in the We Wanted a Revolution and Out of Place: A Feminist Look at the Collection at the Brooklyn Museum. Lev T. Mills, who designed the seal for the Coretta Scott King book award, was featured in Soul of a Nation, an exhibition about the art of the Black Power Movement that travelled the world. His work, Le Roi…?, is in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum. Jae Jarrell, one of the founders of AfriCOBRA, focuses on fashion design that inspires pride, power, and respect to African Americans. Wadsworth Jarrell is a painter, sculptor, printmaker, and a founding member of AfriCOBRA. After leaving a teaching post at Howard University, Jarrell became an Assistant Professor at University of Georgia. Both Jae Jarrell and Wadsworth Jarrell’s art were featured at the 2019 Venice Biennale for AfriCOBRA’s exhibition, Nation Time.
In recent years, there has been an interest in the work of the visual artists of the Black Power Movement. Not only did AfriCOBRA exhibit at the Venice Biennale, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-83, traveled to several museums around the world. While the dates of inclusion ranged from 1963-1983, several artists from the Black Arts Movement era were included. The exhibition, organized by the Tate Modern in the UK, traveled to the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco, The Broad in Los Angeles, the Museum of Fine Art Houston, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas, and the Brooklyn Museum. The Tate explicates:
Artists responded to these times by provoking, confronting, and confounding expectations. Their momentum makes for an electrifying visual journey. Vibrant paintings, powerful murals, collage, photography, revolutionary clothing designs and sculptures made with Black hair, melted records, and tights – the variety of artworks reflects the many viewpoints of artists and collectives at work during these explosive times.
Though the Black Arts Movement is dated as 1965-1975, the impact the artists of this period have on the contemporary moment is significant. Using art as a tool for liberation was the main operative of the movement. And today we see so many artists making their living by being artists in a way that was unthought of in 1965.
Because of them, we can.
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Shantay Robinson 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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