African American Visual Arts

African American Visual Arts

African American Visual Arts

African American Visual Arts

Synopsis

This book examines the quilts, ceramics, paintings, sculpture, installations, assemblages, daguerreotypes, photography and performance art produced by African American artists over a two hundred year period. The author draws on archaeological discoveries and unpublished archival materials to recover the lost legacies of artists living and working in the United States. As the first critical study to provide in-depth case studies of twenty artists, this book introduces readers to works created in response to the Middle Passage, Atlantic slavery, lynching, racism, segregation, and the fight for civil rights. Bernier examines little-discussed panoramas, murals, portraits, textile designs, collages and mixed-media installations to get to grips with key motifs and formal issues within African American art history. Working within this tradition, artists experiment with cutting edge techniques and alternative subject-matter to undermine racist iconography and endorse a new visual language. They push thematic and formal boundaries to create powerful narratives and epic histories of creativity, labour, discrimination, suffering and resistance. By providing close readings of works by artists such as Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, William Edmondson, Howardena Pindell, Charles Alston, Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, Betye Saar, Horace Pippin and Kara Walker, this book sheds new light on the thematic and formal complexities of an African American art tradition which still remains largely shrouded in mystery. Includes 16 colour photographs.

Excerpt

I have written this book with the aim of breathing fresh life into African American art history by focusing upon the aesthetic issues and experimental practices of artists working across a long time frame and a diverse range of media. Emerging during slavery and surviving on down through to a post-civil rights era, black visual arts have taken many forms including mural, portrait, landscape and abstract painting; sculpture; daguerreotyping and photography; pottery, quilting and collage; assemblage, installation, street and performance art. Despite their many and important differences, it is possible to trace thematic and formal continuities across this vast body of works produced by African American artists living and working in the United States. Many artists have repeatedly pushed the boundaries of media and materials in the search for a visual language which would represent the difficult realities of African American struggles for existence. For so many early artists emerging during slavery in particular, the act of sculpting, painting or quilting in and of itself constituted a radical act of self-expression and resistance.

As contemporary black artist, David Hammons, admits, the visual arts remain the most '“problematic”' for African Americans because '“[y]ou have to sit down and physically make art”' whereas in '“music you could sing the songs while you were picking the cotton; it didn't matter how much hell you were catching”' (in Berger, 1993: 177). African American critic, Alain Locke, was similarly under no illusion that, '[s]tripped of all else, the Negro's own body became his prime and only artistic instrument' (Locke, 1936: 3). By investigating such a diverse range of artists, art movements and forms across a time span of more than two hundred years, this study supports bell hooks's view that the responsibility rests upon us as critics to 'imagine new ways to think and write about visual art', as we 'engage a process of cultural transformation . . .

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