David Bindman, Suzanne Preston Blier, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
This book is a companion volume to the series The Image of the Black in Western Art
, which was completed in five volumes (ten books) between 2010 and 2014, the last volume being on the twentieth century. Of these, three volumes (antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the nineteenth century) were reprints of volumes that originally appeared between 1976 and 1989, while the third volume, Renaissance to Revolution, and the fifth volume, on the twentieth century, had not previously appeared. The present book moves beyond the “West,” that is to say Europe, the Americas, and the Caribbean, to consider the art of Africa and the world to the east, continuing the ambition of the series to represent and place in historical context images of people of sub-Saharan African descent.1 For more details of the history of the project, readers are referred to the preface to each volume of The Image of the Black in Western Art, by David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010–2014).
Adrienne Childs noted in her essay in The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume V, part 2, that with the series’ move into the twentieth century to include the decades from 1960 to the present day, it became part of the history it recounts. The series was originally conceived by Dominique and Jean de Menil in the 1960s in Houston, Texas, at the height of the struggle for civil rights for African Americans in the United States, and, along with the Menils’ interventions in politics, it was meant as a contribution to ending segregation by providing an alternative to the corrupt visual stereotypes that supported it. The stated objective of the series was to use European art of the past to demonstrate that relations between peoples of African and European descent had not always been governed by the enslavement of the former by the latter. The great art of the past gave glimpses of the possibility of mutual respect and renewed understanding between different peoples, though Dominique de Menil was well aware that art was often used to justify and naturalize slavery.
Dominique de Menil (her husband died in 1973) collected African as well as European art, but it was inevitable in the 1960s, when the series was conceived, and in the 1970s, when the volumes first started to appear, that the focus should be on “the West” and also on the past. It appears that originally the series of volumes was to end in the late eighteenth century, and the distinguished art historian Jacques Thuillier was to write the final section. It was agreed at an early stage that the series should continue into the nineteenth century; the volume (in two books) published by Hugh Honour in 1989 had a chronological terminus of 1920. It is only with the completion in 2012 of the series to include the previously unpublished volume on the period 1500–1800 that it was decided to continue the series up to the present day.
It is indicative of the global consciousness of recent decades, as well as of changes within the discipline of the history of art, that the series as originally conceived should now appear limited by its exclusive focus on European and American culture. There are two aspects of this limitation, both of which the present book is intended to confront. The first is the fact that a great many fascinating images of people of African descent were produced in countries from North Africa to China and Japan, and these are, if anything, even less familiar than their Western counterparts. Second, the rise of postcolonial theory in recent decades has drawn attention to the voices of those who lived—and arguably continue to live—under the dominance of the West and are obliged mainly by language to conform to its values. In other words, “the image of the black” was and is, in the context of the series, no longer just imposed on people of African descent from the outside, but from the late nineteenth century onward has become a means of self-definition for black artists and people in general. This is not to say that prejudicial and racist images have disappeared from Western culture; in fact, as recent images of President Obama, shown in the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, make only too evident, deeply offensive and stereotypical images of African Americans continue to be produced.
The question remains: What does it mean for an artist of African descent to make an image of him- or herself, or of another person of African descent, as opposed to an image of a black person created by an artist who is not black? This vexed question has been at the heart of debates about “identity politics” for a very long time, most recently during the so-called cultural wars of the 1990s, but Alain Locke raised the issue as early as 1936, in a fascinating essay entitled “Negro Art: Past and Present,” in which he argued that younger black artists experimenting with modernist techniques fashioned by Picasso and the Cubists, for example, were in fact signifying upon indigenous African art forms and their modes of representation. “It is, thus, an African influence at second remove upon our younger Negro modernistic painters and sculptors,” Locke wrote. “In being modernistic, they are indirectly being African.” In other words, African American artists, and some African artists, were learning new ways of representing the African subject through a lens applied by European artists, who were imitating and revising certain African forms of representation. Locke is saying, that is, that ways of seeing are not biological; they are constructed. One can learn to see and represent from any source that is useful. The proof of so-called authenticity is in the artifact itself, and not determined a priori by the race of the artist. In fact—need it even be said?—we doubt whether one could possibly identify the race or ethnicity or nationality of an artist simply by examining the art that she or he produced. The famous blindfold test that dispelled Miles Davis’s claim that he could always identify a black jazz musician simply by listening to her or his composition applies equally, we feel, to works of visual and plastic art.
Thus, in collecting images of black subjects created by black artists, whether from Africa or the African diaspora, we are not making epistemological or ontological claims about a work of art’s so-called authenticity, nor of its artistic quality. We simply see these works as their own canon, as another way of organizing viewing and explicating images of the black subject in art, one related to Euro-American traditions of representation but simultaneously with an order and history of their own as well, in the same way that a novel, let’s say, by Toni Morrison exists simultaneously in the canons of American literature and of African American literature, among other literary traditions.
An image of a black person by an artist of European descent can be as sympathetic and even penetrating in character as one created by a black artist; on the other hand, an “outside appraisal” can run the risk of containing an element of condescension, or even participate in stereotyping. But these things can be true of images created by black artists as well. The debate among black artists over the work of Kara Walker, to take just one example, shows us that even black ways of seeing can be quite controversial and fraught, and challenged as “inauthentic” or “stereotypical.”
Nevertheless, for an artist from Africa or of African descent, representing the black subject inevitably, even now, contains an element of assertion of the right to a subjectivity so often and persistently denied by dominant Western societies. Among art critics and historians, this has often raised the question of whether the artist should aspire to “universal” standards of relevance and quality or should seek an expression that is somehow conditioned primarily by a desire to assert a “black” identity (never something agreed upon universally by black people themselves!), or in practice to find ways of reconciling the two. Then too, black artists have energetically debated what “universal” standards of aesthetics actually are. Are ways of seeing inherently political as well? Can “truth” and “beauty” be transcendent values, outside of the social and political context in which these values are brought to bear on a work of art in the act of criticism? And what does it mean to “work within the tradition” if one is defining one’s self and one’s art against the received canon of Western art? As is evidenced by so much work in The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume V, part 2, this can create an exciting visual tension between the two impulses, which forces a variety and intensity of approach that is not unique to black artists but is held in common with artists of other historically subjugated peoples who wish to assert the particularity of their social and political circumstances. While all art is at least implicitly political, in some cases both its subject matter and the act of representing that subject matter can be explicitly political as well.
The taking control of their own image by black artists was already anticipated in The Image of the Black in Western Art
, Volume V, part 2, subtitled The Rise of Black Artists
, where, as the subtitle suggests, the overwhelming proportion of works of art presented were by black artists working in Western countries and broadly within Western artistic traditions. Africa and Asia are, therefore, in a sense not commensurate with each other. If for Suzanne Preston Blier in the present volume the question for images of Africans in Africa is “Who are we?” then for the Africans in Asia and Asians in Africa it remains, as in Western countries before the twentieth century, “Who are they?”2 See chap. 1.
This can be seen very clearly from an examination of Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s powerful image entitled Black Friar, 1989, on the cover of the present volume, an image selected by and especially resonant for Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Though his garment irresistibly conjures up to us the “hoodie,” so often worn by black youths in the United States and particularly associated with the tragic death of Trayvon Martin in February 2012, it is in fact a monk’s cowl probably based on an El Greco or Zurburan painting of St. Francis of Assisi. The unexpected presence of a black face staring intently at the viewer framed by an emblem of Christianity that goes back to the Middle Ages suggests that intense religious feeling is not bounded by European history, but is open to Africans, especially those like the artist who belong to the black diaspora. The image thus complicates and enriches the question of black identity and exile, by in effect showing a black figure wearing “borrowed” clothes.
For those who were invited to contribute chapters to the Africa section of this book, the very process of engagement was sometimes a complex and difficult one. Before the authors met at Harvard in March 2012 to present their preliminary findings to each other, the general sense for some was that the topic was almost too amorphous to grasp and there was little one could say meaningfully about it. For many this was viewed as one of the toughest writing tasks they have had to do, in part because, unlike the other Image of the Black volumes, this volume comprises in essence a set of studies of how Africa sees and personifies itself through art—a far more daunting task in many ways than grappling with the weight and nuances of engagements of the “Other.” Looking at the whole of the continent’s art and its history in this way came to suggest a study of portraiture and self-portraiture, only here involving not only works that set out to depict an individual or group but a detailed reading of the artistic corpus as a whole.
At the same time this kind of challenge, one that requires scholars long familiar with their subjects to stretch beyond well-known frameworks, has unique benefits. Most notable in this case were the ways in which identity, engagement, transformation, and historical reframing came into play. While in the African arts, race and color, and the horrible centuries of the international slave trade, figure less centrally than in the Image of the Black in Western Art volumes, more important here are questions of social legacies (family, associations, etc.). In short, insider and outsider identities take on new kinds of values and modes of representation.
However, a sharp distinction between Africa and Asia belies the fact that there has been two-way traffic between the two continents in all periods of human history. The Indian Ocean was perhaps even more of a thoroughfare than the Atlantic. The presence of Africans in Asia was mainly conditioned by the ease or difficulty of sea and land access; hence their conspicuous and long-lasting presence in North Africa and India, and of traders from both regions in Africa.3 See Sugata Bose, A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire (Cambridge, Mass., 2006); and Edward A. Alpers, The Indian Ocean in World History (Oxford, 2014).
Yet geography is not the sole determinant of presence nor of the production of works of art in which Africans are represented. In terms of distance and difficulty of sea and land access, it is predictable that China and Japan should have produced substantially fewer representations of Africans than North Africa and India have. Though that is true of both the former countries and especially of China, where images of blacks are very scarce before the later twentieth century, in fact such images were produced in Japan from the seventeenth century onward, because Dutch traders there often brought black servants with them and black sailors often landed there. In other words, there is no easy correlation between the number of Africans present in a particular country and the number of representations of them. The production of images of Africans by non-Africans requires the encouragement and production not only of art but in particular of representational
art, which is far from universal in Asia, and which in any case varies from region to region within particular countries.
Insofar as The Image of the Black in Western Art was originally conceived as an intervention in the brutal racial conflict in the United States in the 1960s, the subject matter was largely people descended from inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa who had been forcibly transported to slave colonies in the Americas and the Caribbean. In this volume we are able to consider the artistic presence of Africans in Africa itself, but also in the countries of Asia, where, in the Muslim countries and India, if not in China and Japan, Africans were enslaved in numbers broadly comparable to those in Western countries. However, attitudes toward Africans varied sometimes quite substantially from one Asian country to another and within each country; a study of their representation in both Africa and Asia enables justice finally to be done to the African presence in art worldwide.