origin[ate]: persistence and resistance in Black art
I got my introduction to art history as a field of study in a Canadian university in the late 1980s. I learned from white professors who only used Eurocentric textbooks—textbooks that seemed to be based on a structure borrowed from the Book of Genesis. The books used a ‘this-artist-begat-that-artist’ approach to impart a narrative in which artistic styles were handed down from one artist to the next, evolving as one genius, then the next adapted the vocabularies of the masters that came before them. This approach resulted in an unyielding, and rather facile account of human creation that took us through a telling of art history that was limited, primarily, to the region we now know as Europe, albeit with a foundational launch in ancient Egypt and then brief forays into western and northern Asia, as stylistic evolution necessitated.
Although I was introduced to art history through a narrow, colonial lens, I was always convinced of its potential expansiveness and pliability. When we would discuss how Picasso and his modernist companions used African masks and carvings (and those made by artists from other cultures whose artistic treasures had fallen prey to the pillaging deeds of European colonizers) I would think to myself, what if instead of honing in on just the visual attributes of the plundered works, Picasso and his peers had recognized and mimicked the tendency of non-European creative production to weave together visual creativity, music, dance, spirituality, ceremony, and celebration? What would it have been like to study that complex, multifarious, globe-spanning art history that of course included the art made for millennia all over the continent of Africa, rather than just the Egyptian creations appropriated by European chroniclers to give a foundation to what they imagined the canon to be?
In his 1964 book of essays Shadow and Act, the African-American novelist and literary critic Ralph Ellison wrote, "it was the African's origin in cultures in which art was highly functional which gave him an edge in shaping the music and dance of this nation.” The objects from Africa collected as art in colonial institutions—textiles, jewellery, pottery, furniture, funerary objects, costumes and masks—served quotidian purpose or were central to ceremonial activities. It is true that museums have begun to move away from the decontextualized, static presentation of African sculptures as visual objects with meanings determined by the Euro-North-American canon rather than by their originating communities. Ellison’s observation, however, should propel museums not just to broaden their interpretation and contextualization of these objects, but to expand their definitions of art, so that they might fully encompass the work that has emerged from the diverse fields of production in which Black artists make art as a result of the impacts of colonial incursions on their lineal and creative legacies.
This alternative timeline of art history takes as its foundation the performative, ritualistic and ceremonial aspects that provided the original framework for the objects that are now generally referred to as“traditional” African art. The performative qualities of African cultures were the creative impetus that crossed the Atlantic Ocean with the slave ships and came to define music and art in the African Diaspora. Mainstream art history has unfolded in a manner which has seen great Black visual artists first omitted, and more recently paternalistically inserted into an exclusionary art history. The colonial subtext to both the leaving out and the letting in is the presumption that the standards of artistic achievement that had once prevented the entry of Black artists into the canon must be ‘lowered’ to permit their inclusion.
We only have to look at the non-Black appetite for Black art—whether the Benin Bronzes or the Blues—to recognize its excellence and make an argument for a new art historical framework that allows for the incorporation of all of the great Black creatives that have their roots in the multifaceted expressions of African art. Although they had minimal time or materials, enslaved Africans found ways to carry forward the artistic languages of their ancestors. The music, storytelling, dance, medicine, ceremony, ritual and worldviews that they held onto are still at the root of a great deal of twenty-first century Black creative endeavours, even that which takes the form of contemporary popular culture. An understanding of Black art has to start with a recognition of the distinctive art historical framework in which it exists: one in which traditional, popular and high cultures co-mingle, crossing barriers of time, geography, genre and, that which is perhaps most at odds with the constructs of mainstream art history—class. Black artists have been historically excluded from the platforms of high art, and have chosen the realm of the popular for reasons ranging from accessibility to survival. While the mainstream art world holds these platforms of creative expression in hierarchical relationship, in the Black community, enduring African tradition can be found at the foundations of almost any form of art.
Of course, we need to recognize the value of Black art and artists in the context of our drive towards undoing anti-Blackness and fighting for the recognition of the value of Black lives. We need to do this in a Black art for Black art’s sake kind of way, but we should also recognize that Black experience and creativity encompass and embody legacies, experiences, and resistances that are valuable tools in the work that we all must do in order to dismantle systemic racism and inequities. When we speak of decolonization in Canada, the tendency is to limit the discussion to the binary of settler-Indigenous relations. This approach only serves to once again centre whiteness, ignoring the fact that we will never get to the other side of this struggle we call decolonization if we are not aiming to undo all of the colonial structures that have been cast upon us.
Michelle Jacques is a curator, educator, and cultural worker. She is currently the Head of Exhibitions and Collections/Chief Curator at Remai Modern, which is situated on Treaty 6 Territory and the Homeland of Métis, in the city also known as Saskatoon. Prior to moving to the Prairies, she was the Chief Curator at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria in British Columbia for 8 years; before that, she held curatorial positions in the contemporary and Canadian departments at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. While her long-term commitment is to growing the relevance of visual art museums, she has also worked as the Director of Programming at the Centre for Art Tapes, an artist-run centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and taught writing, art history and curatorial studies at NSCAD University, the University of Toronto Mississauga, and OCAD University.
Portrait credit: Good Side Photo
Banner image: photo by Michelle Jacques. George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic performing at the Phoenix Concert Threatre, Toronto, Ontario, July 19, 2009.