By Mark O'Brien
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Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic

This article is over 12 years, 5 months old
Tate Liverpool, until 25 April 2010
Issue 345

The opening pieces in this comprehensive exhibition express its major theme. The artists of the Black American avant-garde of the 1930s were as influenced by the contemporary trends in European art as they were by the vibrancy of the street life and jazz culture of the US ghetto. The artists of what became known as the Harlem Renaissance reacted against the exoticisation of non-European peoples, typical of the “primitivist” art of a previous generation, by embracing the styles current within the world of European art. In Aaron Douglas’s paintings ancestral African themes are reworked through the modernist idiom; the street life of Harlem is similarly captured in those of Palmer Hayden; while in the sculpture of Sargent Johnson the modernist style is consciously used to project positive images of African Americans.

But it is the transatlantic geographical focus of the exhibition that is its main organising thread. The Négritude movement of the 1920s and 1930s found its most important home in Paris. “Negrophilia”, a craze for all things African, also swept the city. This heady mix brought together black francophone intellectuals, leftist political radicals and figures from the European avant-garde. Artists and patrons such as disinherited heiress Nancy Cunard, the painter Man Ray, the poster artist Paul Colin and the Hungarian sculptor Constantin Brâncusi and others created a unique creative environment which worked together the imagery of urban modernisation with the energy of black and anti-colonial resistance. Symbolised by the dancer and entertainer Josephine Baker, this was a world in which African American artists found they could breathe and work free of the racism that confronted them at every turn in the US.

The exhibition traces the interweaving influences of black resistance and modern art through the decades. The rise of the post-war anti-colonial movements all found their artistic expressions in their respective periods. The work of Wilfredo Lam vividly portrays the dignity and defiance of the workers of the sugar and tobacco plantations of the Caribbean, while the works of Brazilian sculptor Agnaldo Manoel dos Santos celebrate the traditions of the Yoruba people of West Africa.

The “Dissident Identities” part of the exhibition covers the civil rights era and beyond. Here the balance between “art” and “politics” shifts decisively over to the latter as the pieces become increasingly socially conscious and angry. A flavour of this is provided by Adrian Piper’s self-portrait, “I Embody Everything You Most Hate and Fear”. The exhibition ends with the rise of post-modernist forms of artistic imagery that move away from “the social” and “the political” and focus rather on personal and cultural identity. This part of the exhibition features work by Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Inspired by Paul Gilroy’s 1993 book, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, the exhibition is worth a visit. Its historical span is over-ambitious and some of the eras are covered too sparsely to be satisfying. Nonetheless, in its central aim of demonstrating the relevance and importance of the work of successive generations of black artists to modernism in the visual and figurative arts, it succeeds.

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