The dynamics of power unite artworks in this section. African and African American artists employ a range of visual strategies—upended figures; blood seeping from wounds; poses and gestures denoting individual or collective strength, or its absence—in the explorations of power and its social and political implications.
Works of art are powerful mechanisms for conveying meaning. Their potency partially derives from the emotional and intellectual intensity that accompanies one’s encounters with art, an intensity that is influenced by aesthetic, experiential, and other factors. A remarkable group of artworks in Conversations examines power from distinct points of view.
- How artworks explore the human capacity to subjugate others and to struggle against oppression
- How artists contest, appropriate, or undermine authority through their work
- How works of art instill an abiding hope for positive change that comes through an embrace of racial justice and true equality
In Africa’s traditional arts, ferocious, fantastic, and composite depictions often serve as counterpoints to positive ideals by visualizing the opposite—negative, antisocial qualities that should be avoided. A Pende artist from the Democratic Republic of the Congo considered this concept in depicting a man riding a buffalo, an animal associated with the volatile and dangerous forces of the bush, the area beyond the cultured, cultivated world of humans. The rider’s peaked headdress denotes an individual of considerable authority and high status, likely a ruler, whose capacity to tame the dangerous forest buffalo illustrates the authority he exerts over both man and nature.
In Peace Halting the Ruthlessness of War, the African American artist Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller convincingly evokes the mythic battle waged to secure peace in the face of war. War is depicted as a powerful equestrian figure straining at the reins, as a horse tramples the unfortunate, who writhe in anguish beneath its feet and seek mercy. Fuller, a community activist committed to both suffragist causes and the World War I-era peace movement, originally included a figure of Peace in the form of an angel, but later removed it.
Both the African American artist Eldzier Cortor’s Still Life: Souvenir No. IV and the Ghanaian artist Godfried Donkor’s From Slave to Champ I employ well-known images of Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion, adopting the stance—feet wide apart, arms raised, fists clenched—of a boxer prepared to do battle in the ring. Johnson was a flamboyant and controversial boxer who defeated a series of white contenders seeking to achieve the title he held from 1908 to 1915.
In distinctive ways both works examine issues of race and economic inequality as legacies of enslavement. In Donkor’s work, Johnson’s imposing size, golden halo, and dominant position over the depictions at his feet of the cramped hold of a slave ship are all visual devices that suggest moral victory over oppression and inequality—particularly poignant since Johnson was born in Texas to parents who were former slaves. Cortor’s work includes the image of Johnson amid a collection of clothing, personal items, and memorabilia that reflect a history of heroic struggles by African American boxers from the 1920s to the 1940s. It pays homage to black sportsmen who were seen as heroes in the black community.
In Covering Sarah, the South African artist Senzeni Marasela embroiders on pieces of cloth that recall napkins, table runners, and other domestic items. In these and other works, the artist considers her own history and her feelings of both love and loss for her mother, who is schizophrenic.
Marasela also examines ideas of Western exploitation and racial stereotyping through imagery associated with Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman, a black South African woman who was exhibited in early nineteenth-century British and European sideshows as the “Hottentot Venus.” Baartman’s popularity as a sideshow attraction was due, in part, to her “exotic” origins and her distinctive physique, including her prominent buttocks, which contrasted markedly with Western notions of the feminine ideal.
In the simple gesture of covering Baartman’s body, Marasela removes Sarah from this history of voyeuristic Western exploitation and clothes her, albeit in attire (a full skirt, an apron, and a head scarf) often associated with South African domestic workers—a profession with its own history of social and economic exploitation. In this way the artist communicates both her own feeling of loss due to her mother’s illness and the loss that black children experience throughout South Africa as they are forced to grow up without their mothers who work outside the home in the service of other families.
Robert Colescott casts broad blame, a withering gaze, and a sense of humor on the prevalence of racial stereotypes in his deliberate exaggeration of the female form at the center of Death of a Mulatto Woman. In this jarring scene the artist ruminates on the trope of the “tragic mulatto,” a legacy of the racial and sexual violence of American slavery. The tragic mulatto embodies the notion that the mixing of black and white blood results in an impossible conflict of being. Unable to fit in either society, he or she lives an ambivalent life that cannot be reconciled except in death.
Colescott unites whites and blacks as both mourners and voyeuristic spectators who view the woman, and he suggests her mixed ancestry, as she is thrust across two continents—Africa to the right, as the face of a female figure in a purple dress, and Europe emerging in the lower left corner. While the tragic mulatto is a contrived character, Colescott reminds us of the politics of race that continue to haunt our culture, which was built on fragile, and meaningless, racial divisions.
In this work, William Kentridge relates the specific violence of South Africa during and after apartheid to larger, shared human dramas. Kentridge focuses on a head, pictured as part of a corpse, that is outlined in reddish chalk—a crime scene one could find anywhere in the world. The viewpoint recalls the round sight of a sniper’s rifle, but a rock in the foreground suggests the deadly potential of a different weapon.
This painting was my ode to the scarcity—and to the plight—of the black doll. . . . The positioning of the dolls hanging from a clothesline, in an upside-down trajectory as they are suspended in perpetuity, suggests an uncertain future status. The expressionistic paint rendering and predominant use of red are a visceral interpretation of the persistent and relentless distortion of black imagery in our culture.—Erika Ranee Cosby
From a distance, Johannes Phokela’s Cuts looks like an abstract arrangement of concentric red lines. Upon closer examination, however, one sees that the artist has slashed the canvas and stitched up the gashes, which drip red paint as if from fresh wounds. It is a viscerally powerful work, yet a repeat pattern of gold frames overlays these wounds—a visual device that perhaps allowed the artist to remove himself from the violence he saw inflicted on his fellow citizens.
Keith Morrison’s Zanzibar is a study in contrasts, though its political message and emotional impact are indirect. In this abstract composition, a dominant dark blue background is interrupted by the diagonal movement of a wide band of red, which, for the artist, symbolizes the political conflict he encountered during his travels in East Africa.