A Renaissance against racism...

A Renaissance against racism...

Olimpia Gaia Martinelli | Feb 22, 2023 10 minutes read 1 comment

Larsen's novel seems to continue in the point of view expressed, roughly thirty years later, by Jacob Lawrence's painting, which, titled Taboo (1963), is one of the many works created by the artist during the civil rights movement, aimed at expressing, through the depiction of two mixed couples intent on getting married, all the aversion felt by the master to taboos concerning marriages between people of different races...

LET'S DANCE ! (2022) Collages by Dominique Kerkhove (DomKcollage).

From literature to painting to poetry...

"It is easy for a Negro to 'pass' as white. But I don't think it is so easy for a white person to 'pass' as a Negro."

These words, dating back to 1929, but, unfortunately and unacceptably, still very relevant in part, were written by Nella Larsen in the novel Passing, a work in which, by means of that very term, the American obsession with the "color line," or that imaginary boundary line, which, in the minds of the most racist, conservative or simply stupid emulators of the "majorities," separated the boundary between whites and blacks, excluding the latter from the political and social life of the time, was analyzed. Bringing even more clarity in this regard, it is worth noting that, in the writer's time, discriminatory treatment was assumed indiscriminately, that is, toward anyone with even a single drop of black blood in his or her genetic makeup. To such racism many mulattos responded precisely with the phenomenon that the title of the book reports, which, defined precisely as "passing", represented a custom according to which it was possible to decide to cross the color line in order to define oneself as white, accepting, as a result, to become acquainted with another "environment," which in a manner not entirely foreign, but not even so friendly, led "the candidate" to no longer know quite how to talk about one's origins and, consequently, about oneself. Although the tendency in question served as a way to escape from segregation, it led to certain disadvantages, in that, those who had obtained to be white, by the time they came across people of color, they now recognized that they belonged to another faction, in which, however, they did not even believe so fervently. These feelings are what one of the book's protagonists, namely Irene Redfiled, would like to hear from her friend Clare, a light-skinned woman with African-American roots, who, precisely through the aforementioned phenomenon of "passing", managed to appear white not only in the eyes of the society she frequented, but also to those of a deeply racist husband.

SAME (2019)Painting by Ztn Artist.

At this point, in order to render the image of such a union, let us turn from literature to art history, where Larsen's novel seems to continue in the point of view expressed, roughly thirty years later, by Jacob Lawrence's painting, which, titled Taboo (1963), is one of the many works created by the artist during the civil rights movement, aimed at expressing, through the depiction of two mixed couples intent on getting married, all the aversion felt by the master to taboos concerning marriages between people of different races. This purpose of denunciation needs to be contextualized within the U.S. culture of the time, which, especially in the South, was still inclined to maintain anti-miscegenation laws, which made the said act not only a transgression on a social level, but also an actual crime. Still on the subject of marriage, a later work by the same artist, titled Dreams no.2 (1965), exhibits an arguably related concept, in that it highlights how unfortunately, only in the dimension of the dream, could a blue-faced man and a woman with a reddish complexion actually be happy to celebrate their union, which took place in the meanderings of the mind of the figure posing in the foreground. In a sense, the unconscious of the tempera's protagonist, rightly, feels ready to overcome the racial barriers of her era, recognizing herself as part of a whole, which is enriched precisely by the presence of that much-feared diversity. It is precisely this last thought, then, that makes me think of the most total acceptance of the many shades of skin, expressed by the "carefree" two-tone girl in the painting La Baker (1977), by Loïs Mailou Jones, a painter, whose work, drew largely from the French, Haitian and African traditions, as well as that of her native country, namely New England, a region in the northeastern United States of America, where the artist was trained and expressed herself, externalizing a highly personal worldview, aimed at narrating a complex point of view rendered by stylized forms, rich colors and a concise two-dimensionality, having the purpose of eschewing, in a prevalent way, the objectives of political and propagandistic storytelling.

DANCE AGAINST RACISM (1990)Painting by Pierre Peytavin.

Regarding the aforementioned 1977 work, however, it, in addition to largely reflecting the stylistic peculiarities enunciated above, is meant to cite and celebrate, just as per its title, the figure of Josephine Baker, the first woman of African descent, who, by starring in a major motion picture, became, both a world-renowned entertainer and an unforgettable source of inspiration for entire generations of African American women. Staying on the subject of identity pride, the master herself claimed the importance of her origins in Ubi Girl from Tai Region, a painting in which a young woman, intent on staring at the viewer through the slits of her half-closed eyelids, presents the typical face decorated in the colors of the ritual of initiation into womanhood in the Tai region of the Ivory Coast, a place Jones had visited during a long trip to Africa in search of her roots, an episode heartily accompanied by a desire to arrive at a liberated African American art form, that is, one that is bolder, more daring, identitarian and extremely intimate. In addition, through her sojourns on the said continent, the painter became aware of a sad truth, namely, the existence of a shared experience, which, referred to by the term Blackness, was capable of uniting the events of the developing African nations, recently exiled from independence, with the kindred struggles for inequality of African Americans. Returning instead for a moment to La Baker, such a painting might find its "soul mate" in Marian Anderson, a 1945 oil painting by William H. Johnson, aimed at celebrating, as per its title, another prominent black woman, known to have been a popular spiritual and gospel opera contralto, whose talent overcame racial barriers leading her, even, to sing at the first inaccessible Lincoln Memorial in 1939.

STILL LIFE WITH AFRICAN MASK (2020)Painting by Galya Didur.

LOUIS (2021)Collages by Olivier Bouvard.

It is precisely with this last masterpiece that we land, for a moment, in the world of gospel music, recalling how it dates back as far as the seventeenth century, a time when black slaves were brought from Africa to America, a context in which the very notes became a soothing agent to alleviate their suffering. However, the link between music and racism was also followed in later jazz, so much so that one of the most famous musicians of the Twentieth Century, such as Louis Daniel Armstrong, stated without hesitation, "There are a lot of decent people who would turn the corner and lynch a Negro" [...] "But as long as they listen to our music, they don't think about this stuff." Testifying to these stark words are all the difficulties that biographers of the time recall at the moment when, even in the case of the famous trumpeter, he encountered, on some occasions, considerable difficulty in organizing his tour, since he often discounted the fact that being housed in a hotel could be problematic because of his skin color. In this context, it is impossible not to picture Louis Daniel Armstrong intent on guarding his faithful trumpet in his hands, perhaps smiling at the thought that, fortunately, today's black stars do not have to face the ordeal of his era, no doubt thanks in part to his invaluable contribution. This positive image literally takes shape in the collage, made with the ingenious "assemblage" of textiles, by Artmajeur artist Olivier Bouvard, whose subject matter takes us back to a fundamental topical in art history, namely that of the trumpets of the Last Judgment, which, in the context of African-American art, is well exemplified by Aaron Douglas' The Judgment Day (1939). It is precisely this latter masterpiece, conceived by the master more than a decade after he created the illustration on which the painting itself is based, namely Weldon Johnson's collection of poems God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, that reveals reminiscences of a style aimed at amalgamating the tendencies of European modernism with African art. In any case, to be more precise, it is worth explicating how the images in the aforementioned volume were all reinterpreted in large oils, which in the case of The Judgment Day resulted in a composition having as its main subject a black Gabriel, who, with a key in his hand, is intent on blowing into a trumpet as Armstrong, in order to call the living and the dead who are to be judged within the apocalyptic context. At this point, it is impossible not to refer to one of the best-known interpretations of the Book of Revelation, such as that of Albrecht Dürer, a version in which the aforementioned events are, however, described by two different woodcuts: The Seven Angels with the Trumpets, where the musician angels are in greater numbers, and the Angel with the Key of the Abyss, in which the unfailing presence of the devil is added.

STREET JAZZ MUSICIANS (2022)Painting by Giuseppe Valia.

Returning once again to the starting point, that is, the musical dimension, there are many works by African American artists aimed at celebrating the world of jazz and home improvisation, such as, for example, Out chorus (1979-89) by Romare Bearden, Can't sleep at night (1932) and No easy riders (1948-50) by Palmer Hayden. Regarding the latter master, it is important to interpret his work in the light of his creative and personal path, for after living in Paris from 1927 to 1932, he returned to New York and shifted from the depiction of seascapes to an artistic investigation purely focused on the externalization of African American identity. The latter dimension was explored not only through a careful analysis of musical manifestations, but also by means of a careful focus, which, projected onto traditional African dances and masks, is to be understood as a pure manifestation of the consciousness of one's roots. Returning to the works depicting musicians in interiors, such characters could tie in with the interpretation headed by the paintings, which, made by the same artist, immortalize scenes of family life, as those who play music are similarly surrounded by neighbors, friends and family members, aimed at celebrating the value of the nucleus of belonging as a coherent unit in continuous expansion. In fact, in this very context, music appears as a binder, capable of fortifying the aforementioned ties, channeling them into a common dimension, where an unambiguous perception of the world, intentions and values can be discerned. Speaking of the contemporary art world, on the other hand, jazz music takes us, this time, to the "inside" of an external setting, aimed at coming to life in the canvas of Artmajeur's artist Giuseppe Valia, who, in a rather "reckless" way, wanted to place the protagonists of his work in the center of a street, a communication route also visible through the surreal transparencies reported by the bodies of the objects and characters themselves.

WEST HARLEM NYC (2019)Painting by Helene.

Finally, it is time to reveal to you what is the common thread that binds all the well-known masterpieces mentioned in this long figurative narrative, which take place, as the title of the painting West Harlem NYC by artist Helene of Artmajeur makes explicit, in the well-known Manhattan neighborhood known for being an important cultural and commercial center of African Americans. It was in the latter place that the Harlem Renaissance took place, an intellectual and cultural renaissance encompassing musical expression, dance, art, theater, literature, politics and fashion, of which all the celebrated masters investigated above were part, precisely, during the 1920s and 1930s of the twentieth century. Such artistic and intellectual fervor was accompanied, as we have already seen, by a renewed militancy in the general struggle for civil rights, which, in the context of the anniversary of Black History Month, deserves to be remembered, celebrated, enhanced, promoted, and never forgotten also through the actual works of Artmajeur.

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