The Mexican Connection: The New Negro and Border Crossings

Article excerpt

From the mid-1930s to just before the black cultural explosion of the 1960s, African-American artists experienced a flowering of cultural activities that reinvigorated the concept of the New Negro. Like the initial manifestations of the New Negro in the first decades of the century, the efforts of these artists continued to redefine the character and social role of blacks in North America. But more important, they signaled a search for a cultural identity that would have international implications in a modern world.

Although many of these artists had also received some academic training in Europe, they sought ways to recast the techniques they had learned into modes of expression that spoke to their own heritage. The black philosopher Alain Locke, in particular, encouraged black artists to look to Southern folk culture and its reinterpretations in urban centers and to find precedents for that culture in Africa and the Caribbean.)

For visual artists, what emerged was an ideology that stressed the relationship between images and ethnic and class struggle. As African-American artists shaped their own group identification, they recognized a shared outlook in the work of the Mexican muralists of the 1920s and early 1930s. The political and artistic convictions of the Mexicans were discussed at length at African-American community centers. African-American artists were encouraged to express this growing social consciousness in their work, using images and messages that were similar to those of the Mexican artists but that expressed the hopes and concerns of blacks in the United States.

What was most engaging was the way the Mexican muralists successfully combined a reverence for the traditional folk cultures of Mexico and a persistent demand for social and political justice for the oppressed. For those New Negro artists who shared a desire to revive a native black culture in the context of Southern folklore, the Mexican School presented a key model. It was yet another catalyst in their struggle for self-definition in a brutalizing modern world.

The African-American artists who were most directly affected by the Mexican School artists were Charles Alston, John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Sargent Claude Johnson, Jacob Lawrence, Charles White, John Wilson and Hale Woodruff. The work of the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente orozco provided them with an art form that was in line with the progressive theories of Alain Locke. The Mexican muralists engaged themselves directly in the social, economic and political conditions of the common people. They expressed and encouraged communal interaction toward the shared goals of fighting oppression and celebrating their cultural heritage. This fully integrated political program undergirding the Mexican work became a model for African-American artists. Epic murals that presented concrete examples of past acts of heroism became the preferred form.

Murals that celebrated precolonial subjects and styles were the medium most appreciated by revolutionary Mexican artists and, subsequently, by black American artists, intellectuals and educators. They were public paintings that would uplift and teach black students. One result of this didactic purpose (in Mexico as well as in the United States) was the creation of innumerable saintly portrayals of martyrs and heroes. But for the audiences, these faithful, identifiable representations of heroes served as confidence-building experiences that were positively received and politically acceptable because they were rooted in their history and culture. The mere fact that artists were finally beginning to represent black people as contributors to North American society was itself a radical departure from earlier representations of blacks as an American burden.

The struggle of Mexican artists to liberate workers from the dominance of the upper class was attractive to black artists. …