I’d like to begin my presentation with this quote by art historian George Kubler.
In my research, I look for recurrent cultural practices in African American art, as well as themes that illuminate these practices. This image shows the production cycle of African American artistic and cultural practices that reflect diverse influences and contexts. Black artists manage their representations (images, sounds, systems) in mainstream society and the global world through creativity and innovation, and by using improvisation and re-appropriation to move beyond the limits of nationality or identity. We see these representations manifested again and again in black culture.
Techno is a form of electronic dance music that emerged in Detroit during the late 1980s. In 1997, techno music duoDrexciya produced ”The Quest” which includes in its liner notes a map divided into four stages: the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade; the Great Migration of the early 20th century; the dispersion of techno music around the world; and the imaginary Journey Home (back to Africa) in the future. This last image visualizes the concept of a intercultural, transnational network by showing the newly established bonds that transform identities and cultures. Drexciyaengaged with both water and outer space, re-appropriating or reclaiming the Middle Passage as a many other African American artists have done in different genres.
Re-appropriation is one way that artists reclaim culturalartifacts, often to counter dominant social or political systems. Many Black artists reclaim and adapt secret African symbols such as the Kongocosmogram which is a native map of the universe. The cosmogram or mandala is a universal cultural glyph that represents the cycle of life, or a crossroad between the spiritual and material worlds. The KiKongo version describes the cycle of life in four phases or positions, with water (Kalunga) being the central theme.Kalunga is the barrier between the world of living and the world of the ancestors under the sea. As you will see in this presentation, water is a recurring theme in black art. In “DuSable’s Journey,” (on the right) theConwills created a floor map that traces the water routes traveled by Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable, Chicago’s first settler, from his native Haiti through the various waterways that lead to the Great Lakes.
In his SFMoMA blog series Duane Deterville notes the influence of the Kongocosmogram that places water at the center line between God, death and the stages of life (the circles) around it. I refer to this watery space as the “aquazone”. Deterville applies the Kongocosmogram and the water theme to Kahlil Joseph’s film for Flying Lotus’ “Until the Quiet Comes”. Flying Lotus is a experimental, multi-genre music producer from Los Angeles. This music video shows an awareness of African diasporic spiritual practices and cosmology.
For artist Ellen Gallagher this “aquazone” is the imaginary space for an origin myth. Rather than originating on the African continent her “Watery Ecstatic” series begins in the Atlantic ocean, in route to the Americas. Inspired by the techno music group Drexciya, who claimed to channel oral hallucinations from the Middle Passage, Gallagher visualizes a Black Atlantis made up of women and children who went overboard during the voyage. The construction of new stories, such as Drexciya’s quasi Atlantis myth, is an important part of Afrofuturism, a cultural aesthetic that navigates past, present and future simultaneously.
African American quilters have preserved important aspects of traditional African images through the re-appropriation of shapes, designs, and various concepts. During the Great Migration of the early 20th century African Americans brought with them these signs and symbols. The process of reclaiming these representations continues in the work of contemporary artists. Sanford Biggerswas inspired by the mythology of quilts as signposts along the Underground Railroad. He reclaims artifacts and knits them together by applying to each quilt a complex system of imagery that includes symbols from African, African American and Asian cultures. In a sense, Biggers remixes cultural artifacts and remixing is part of improvisation.
I pulled this quote by Patrick Manning because I think it adequately describes the cultural practice of improvisation.
Improvisation is the practice of performing, creating, problem solving, or reacting in the moment and in response to one's environment and inner feelings.West African societies such as the Yoruba, the Akan and the Ibo possess musical forms that use multiple layers of rhythms also called polyrhythm. West African musicians developed a complex interweaving of contrasting rhythmic patterns.Polyrhythm is the simultaneous use of two or more conflicting rhythms and it is a staple of modern jazz and hip-hop.
Improvisation results in the invention of new practices, artwork, and/or new ways of acting. Hip hop is simultaneously a new and old phenomenon; the importance of sampling means that much of the culture has revolved around the idea of updating classic recordings, attitudes, and experiences for modern audiences. Hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash (top left)played a key role in the technical design of Rane Corporation’s Empath mixer. His technological rhetoric acknowledges that he understood he was re-creating technology based on his own personal aesthetics as well as using scientific methods to develop his technique.
African American quilts are historical, cultural, and religious images, directing the way from the past to the present. These quilts are often based on “polyrhythmic, ‘nonsymmetrical,’ nonlinear structures.” The unpredictable, innovative rhythms in African American quilts are similar to those found in West African textiles and other cultural art forms. In the example on the left the quilter has deliberately broken up the typical star pattern to create an asymmetrical image. On the right the artist adds new imagery to an traditional star quilt design. Remixing, re-purposing, and sampling from culture creates opportunities for presenting ideas in new and different ways.
Identity – the third and last element of cultural production – refers to the self or essential being of a person. Artists often question commonly held assumptions and stereotypes, self-awareness, portraiture, and what it means to be an artist in their work. Artists can use digital and non-digital avatars as tools for transcendence, reinvention, or for existing in and moving between worlds or realities.
On the left is the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep IV who changed his name to Akhenaten, meaning Effective spirit of Aten (the Sun). Artistic representations of Akhenaten give him a strikingly “bizarre appearance”, with an elongated face, slender limbs, a protruding belly, wide hips, and an overall pear-shaped body. It has been suggested that the pharaoh had himself depicted in this way for religious reasons, or that it exaggerates his distinctive physical traits. Regardless of the reasons for his appearance these features made the Pharaoh stand far apart from those he ruled.
Jazz musician and cosmic philosopherSun Ra’s cultural and artistic legacy laid the blueprint for interdisciplinary Black creativity and innovation. Like Akhenaten Sun Ra (formerly Herman Poole) abandoned his birth name and took on the name and persona of the Egyptian sun god Ra. Sun Ra has been called the father of Afrofuturism, an aesthetic that includes science, science fiction, technology, sound, the arts and other areas.
Globalization has fostered the exploration of identities through mythology and cultural heritage as background for artistic expression. Black artists such as Erykah Badu make tangible an artistic subjectivity and challenge how spectators engage black bodies. In Until the Quiet Comes the dancer Storyboard P (who refers to his style as mutant) moves in this space. WangechiMutu and Nick Cave create work that responds to the cultural legacies of colonialism, imperialism, and mass consumption.
Here’s the Art21 video, JacolbySatterwhite Dances with His Self:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3LgtGM1Wcss
As a researcher I am interested in presenting more diverse cultural and artistic production in underrepresented communities of practice. This practice begins with exploring works that show the cycles of and relationships between re-appropriation, improvisation, and identity in African American art. That is the end of my talk. Are there any questions?
Black Culture and Expression in the 21st Century
The Cyclical Nature of Black Culture
By Nettrice R. Gaskins
"The artist is not a free agent obeying only his own will.
His situation is rigidly bound by a chain of prior events.
The chain is invisible to him and it limits his motion. He
is not aware of it as a chain but only as a vis à tergo, as
the force of events behind him. The conditions imposed
by these prior events require of him either that he
follow obediently in the path of tradition, or that he
rebel against the tradition." -George Kubler
Reappropriation & Countermovement
Left: KiKongo Cosmogram by Duane Deterville; Right: ”DuSable’s Journey” by Houston Conwill and Estella Conwill Majozo.
Reappropriation & the Aquazone
Kahlil Joseph’s film production still from “Until the Quiet Comes,” an album by Flying Lotus.
Reappropriation & Mythology
“Watery Ecstatic (detail)" by Ellen Gallagher. Photo: Mike Bruce. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.
Reappropriation & Symbolism
Left: Josie Covington. “Album Quilt,” 1895. Courtesy Maude Southwell Wahlman; Right: Sanford Biggers‘ re-purposing a 19th century slave quilt. Photo by
Nettrice R. Gaskins.
Black popular culture renewed itself repeatedly through
new technology, new audiences, improvisation, and
continued borrowing. Jazz music provides an
outstanding metaphor in this regard, in that it formally
treats improvisation as essential to the genre. In fact,
improvisation and attention to new audiences and new
techniques have characterized most genres within black
popular culture. –Patrick Manning, The African
Diaspora: A History Through Culture
Improvisation & Polyrhythm
Left: J Dilla in the studio; Right: Shabazz Palaces percussionist Tendai Maraire.
Improvisation & Invention
Clockwise from top left: rap music pioneer Grandmaster Flash; seminal rap group Public Enemy; late graffiti legend Kase2; and break dancer Boogaloo
Improvisation in Art & Crafts
Left: Nora Ezell. “Star Quilt,” 1977. Courtesy Maude Southwell Wahlman; Right: Sanford Biggers. “Quilt #28 (detail),” 2013. Courtesy the artist and Eric
Our survival is based on our ability
to constantly reinvent ourselves.
The Avatar & Revolution
Egyptian Pharoah Akhenaten and his co-Regent Nefertiti.
Enlightenment & Afrofuturism
Jazz pioneer and cosmic philosopher Sun Ra.
Shape Shifting Identities
Clockwise from top left: Erykah Badu, Storyboard P from Kahlil Joseph’s “Until the Quiet Comes”, Wangechi Mutu’s “The End of eating Everything” and Nick
Left: Jacolby Satterwhite’s “Reifying Desire: Model It” at the Studio Museum in Harlem; Right: Robert Pruitt. “Be of Our Space World,” 2012. Courtesy the artist.