Home Historical art A black British artist asks: “What was Africa in the Harlem Renaissance?

A black British artist asks: “What was Africa in the Harlem Renaissance?


“At the museum, the rapture of self-satisfaction rots our eyes, a secret contempt for others dries up our hearts,” continues Whyte, quoting Aimé Césaire, while a Beninese frieze scrolls by; on another screen, a gloved hand turns the pages of a photo album. She delivers a verdict: “No, on the scale of knowledge, the mass of all the museums in the world could never outweigh a single spark of human empathy.” The pasted texts are associated with scenes from two classic films about looting and repatriation: Nii Kwate Owoo’s “You Hide Me” (1970), which follows two young Africans in the storerooms of the British Museum, and “Statues Also Die”. by Chris Marker (1953), its title reversed to Julien. A strange fruit of colonial theft, Julien reminds us, was diasporic collaboration. But the weight of history and the growing prominence of restitution debates cast a different light on Locke’s resurrection of African sculpture. What does it mean, we might ask, to fashion a New Negro out of the scattered limbs of a parent?

Julien’s installation leaves open the possibility that Locke’s Africanism was a failure. He knew, and could know, very little about the carvings he so admired – which, at the time, were often attributed to the wrong ethnic groups and times. Nearly a century after he challenged Barnes, the millionaire institution lives on, while Locke’s efforts to build his own have led him to embarrassment. Once, at the request of Charlotte Osgood Mason – an even more zealous and primitivist patron of the Renaissance – Locke reluctantly asked Paul Robeson to perform a benefit concert for the museum while wearing an African mask. The tall singer politely declined.

In the 1930s, many took a dim view of Locke’s Africanism, decried as a concession to segregation. The next generation’s black artists, such as Romare Bearden, rebelled against the “coddled and condescending” white benefactors with whom the older man had worked; in contrast, the New Deal created more neutral sources of funding for black artists through programs such as the WPA. Critics peaked in the 1970s, when historians like David Levering Lewis recast Locke’s efforts, and the Harlem Renaissance, as an elite diversion of radical energy into the impotent world of high culture. Such arguments still hold sway, especially at a time when the prestige of black art has once again overtaken the material progress of black Americans to the point of casting doubt on any meaningful relationship between them.

But art historian Kobena Mercer argues that Locke’s culturalism has been misinterpreted. In a new book, “Alain Locke and the Visual Arts”, which happily coincides with Julien’s installation, he convincingly challenges the “received image” of his subject as an “effeminate Afro-Edwardian aesthete” without firm concept of the relationship between art, politics and empire. Locke may have been a snob, but he was also, in Mercer’s account, a pragmatist, who believed that black political solidarity needed a renewed cultural foundation; an anti-imperialist, sensitive to the way colonialism had turned indigenous art into creative capital; and a pluralist, whose interest in African sculpture was less a retrograde reconquest of roots than an appreciation of loss prior to cross-cultural renewal.

Although Locke’s museum was never built, it made a large body of African sculpture available to black American artists. In 1926, he persuaded a friend to buy a few dozen pieces of Congolese art from a Belgian diplomat, and those pieces then made a historic tour of black colleges across the United States. Now held by the Schomburg Center in Harlem, the collection likely influenced Romare Bearden, who incorporated the blue motif of a distinctive Kuba mask from the collection into his painting “The Family”. (The post-Harlem generation may have rejected some aspects of Locke’s Africanism, Mercer explains, but they had already digested his ideas.) Another influential legacy was “The Negro in Art” (1940), a book by ‘images whose juxtaposition of African, European, and American traditions were ahead of their time in their proto-multiculturalism and their rejection of “evolutionary” chronology. Freedom of print reproduction, Mercer explains, allowed Locke to construct what André Malraux called a imaginary museumhighlighting the many ways in which “elements that have survived a catastrophic past can undergo metamorphosis and be granted an afterlife.”

Artists of the time shared Locke’s emphasis on death and resurrection. Reflecting on the works of Palmer Hayden, Malvin Gray Johnson, Lois Mailou Jones and others, Mercer demonstrates that mourning was central to Harlem Renaissance Africanism. The masks that often appeared in still lifes of the time, he writes, can be seen as analogous to skulls in the Western tradition of vanity Where memento mori. In a striking interpretation of Jones’s famous painting “The Fetishes” (1938), which depicts a collection of African statues swirling in charged darkness, he writes that the work embodies not a simple recapture of roots but tragedy and promise of the diaspora. “Jones’ masks are double-sided,” he writes, “as they are icons of black survival who cross the abyss, open to new constellations in a galaxy of multiple possibilities for the future of black life. “

Perhaps the most intriguing argument made by Mercer concerns sexuality. Locke came of age amid a Victorian wave of gay aestheticism that looked to classical art as inspiration for a new gay identity. Photographers such as Fred Holland Day and Wilhelm von Gloeden staged homoerotic scenes from antiquity with contemporary models, while writers such as John Addington Symonds – who in an 1878 translation pulled the Michelangelo’s sonnets to his young lover – began to reconstruct the literary history of gay love. Almost as popular as the Greek motifs were the black male designs, whose appeal, according to Mercer, stemmed in part from the association of racial difference with sexual transgression. This Victorian alignment of the black male body with classical homoeroticism paved the way for the Harlem Renaissance, when black artists and a few white fellow travelers mobilized it for their own purposes. In works of art such as Richmond Barthé’s sculpture of Féral Benga, a Senegalese dancer, gently swinging with a sword; Carl van Vechten’s private photo-portraits of nude models posing with African statues; or the illustrations of sensual silhouettes by Richard Bruce Nugent for Fire!!the black male body has become a vector of the future or, as Mercer puts it in the title of his last chapter, “Homo Negro, infinitely new”.

The phrase captures a symmetry between the queer self-way and the African-American search for heritage. Neither Victorian gays nor New Negroes could simply inherit their identity; instead, each group had to invent their ancestors, piecing them together from discontinuous pasts. Although Locke is often called the godfather of the Harlem Renaissance, Mercer notes that he liked to describe himself as its midwife, a label he borrowed from Socrates. While fatherhood involves a determining lineage, queer midwifery suggests a more collaborative approach to cultural identity – a chosen family of ancestors and ancestral arts. It’s a philosophy that lives on in the work of artists like Isaac Julien, a longtime friend and collaborator of Mercer and someone whose cinematic constellations he cites as an influence on his approach. Fittingly then, “Statues Never Die” moves from the cemetery of the anthropology museum to the eroticism of the workshop, where looking back together at the past allows something new to begin. ♦