Artistic engagement with the natural world—from naturalism to abstraction to surrealist meditations—reveals how nature serves as a rich source of metaphor in the arts. Selected artworks examine the multifaceted, often flawed relationships that human beings have with one another and with the environments in which we all live.
Some of the African and African American artworks on view frame and negotiate personal space and identity; others bear witness to inequities and call out for social justice and environmental stewardship; and still others accentuate the transcendent, fragile beauty of our world and our moral imperative to safeguard it—and be a part of it—for the benefit of future generations.
- How artists demonstrate a keen observation of and appreciation for the natural world through their art
- How representations of nature explore artists’ ideas about power, harmony, spirituality, history, and transcendence
The South African artist Georgia Papageorge incorporates ground-down volcanic rock from the crater and other areas of Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro in Maasai Steppe Ascending—Convective Displacement. It is one of a series of works in which the artist explores the destructive effects of poor environmental stewardship, with particular emphasis on the decreasing snow cover atop the mountain owing to climate change, deforestation, and charcoal production.
A ladder links sky and earth, calling to mind the difficult ascent to the summit or, possibly, the challenging path to transcendence. Papageorge’s use of red cloth suggests the bloodlines that bind us to one another, to the geologic sweep of our shared history, and to our mutual obligation to ensure that our world and its natural beauties survive for the benefit of future generations.
Landscapes were the primary subject of the nineteenth-century African American artist Robert S. Duncanson. Duncanson worked in the tradition of the Hudson River school painters, who captured the dramatic grandeur of the American landscape along New York’s Hudson River and beyond. Duncanson’s Falls of Minnehaha depicts the majestic falls located in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A major tourist destination in the mid-nineteenth century, the waterfall was evoked in the popular epic poem The Song of Hiawatha (1855), by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In the poem the young Ojibwa warrior Hiawatha marries Minnehaha, a Dakota maiden whom Longfellow named after the falls. Duncanson depicts a diminutive figure, perhaps Minnehaha, standing on the riverbank, a witness to the beauty of the cascade.
The South African artist Christine Dixie considers personal history and memory in her intriguing self-portrait Unravel, which depicts the artist reflecting on a magnificent vista of the distant mountains, hills, and lowlands of the Eastern Cape that she calls home.
The female figure stands outside the frame of the landscape, with her back to the viewer. Her right hand is raised, pulling a thread that leads from the top of the composition to a ball of yarn in her left hand. Her bare feet are set apart and appear ready to take the next step. The title of the work and the figure’s pose and gestures are evocative and ambiguous, possibly suggesting the artist’s desire to disentangle the history of this landscape and to understand her place within it.
The surrealist Hughie Lee-Smith depicts a moody and almost illegible human narrative within a landscape in Festival’s End #2. The mysterious woman, whose back is turned to the viewer, gazes out over an unfamiliar urban vista. A feeling of melancholy and alienation permeates this lonely scene as the streaming fragments of nearby festivities float by. Lee-Smith’s non-naturalistic representation presents landscape as an imaginative space ripe for open-ended interpretations.
Among the Nuna of Burkina Faso, butterflies are harbingers of rain and thus their appearance is closely connected to the start of the farming season. Butterfly masks reflect this knowledge and represent nature spirits that combine human and animal form—a human head, rendered in high relief, merges with a huge, birdlike creature, depicted with concentric-circle eyes and a projecting, diamond-shaped bill. Birds and chameleons perch above the massive wings, which are ornamented with red, black, and white geometric motifs, suggesting the patterning of butterfly wings.
Bob Thompson’s compelling Bird with Nudes presents a vision of nature that is both simple and highly complex. I recommend entering into Thompson’s world trusting in what you see and freeing yourself to experience the beautiful and mysterious figures, animal-like forms, and strange landscapes.—Adrienne L. Childs
The Ethiopian artist Alexander “Skunder” Boghossian presents a chaotic view of nature, a cosmos out of balance, in Devil Descending. Painted in 1972, the work—along with others produced around that time—captures the instability and tensions leading up to the overthrow of the Ethiopian monarchy in 1974. A fragmented landscape composed of a jumble of geometric forms, graphic symbols, and complex imagery is set against a sky dominated by an orange-red sun, a crescent moon, and a massive predatory creature with shadowy wings outstretched. It is a surreal world clearly threatened by the evil forces set to wreak havoc upon it.—Christine Mullen Kreamer
A fairly overt political approach to the landscape is found in Roots, Southern Landscape, by the expatriate African American artist Walter Williams. In this dreamy, almost fantastic landscape, children play and butterflies drift around a large, dark, upturned tree root that is entangled in barbed wire. This ominous dead tree seems like an incongruous element in a field full of sunflowers and other colorful foliage. However, upon closer examination, we find that the field of flowers turns into a cotton field. Small figures, perhaps children, pick cotton among several shacks.
Williams has fashioned a landscape in which the roots of American slavery and tenant farming are sites of memory wherein the severed roots of the first Africans in America are recalled. However, his depictions of young children, flowers, and butterflies, along with his use of warm, energetic yellow, orange, and pink hues, evoke the promise of renewal.