Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on February 3, 2005 in Resource Library with permission of the author. The essay was excerpted from the 2004 illustrated catalogue for the exhibition Embracing the Muse: Africa and African American Art, held at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery January 15 - March 6, 2004. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the author through address:

Nnamdi Elleh, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Architecture,
College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP),
P. O. Box 210016
University of Cincinnati, Ohio


A Continent without Borders: Africa's Influence on African American Artists

by Nnamdi Elleh


Questioning the Cultural Status Quo with Archeology and History


As an American Negro, my lifelong desire had been to bridge the gap between African and American culture. When I was an art student at Hampton Institute in Virginia during the early forties our art master, Viktor Lowenfeld, taught us something about the noble meaning of African sculpture. But, African art -- in fact, African culture generally -- remained devoid of significance in our lives.
- John Biggers [1]

Embracing the Muse: Africa and African American Artists provide a rare opportunity for us to see prehistoric cave paintings, ancient rituals, sacred sites, ceremonial dresses, mythical stories, and the African continent herself spring to life on the canvasses of select twentieth century African American painters. If we take our time to study what the select artists are presenting to us, we will discover that each painting featured in this exhibition reveals a unique aspect of the relationships that African Americans have with their African heritage. My primary objective in this essay is to explore how the artists used their knowledge of Africa's archeology, history, and geography to construct different aspects of the relationships between African Americans and their African heritage. It will be shown that many African Americans establish their cultural bond with the whole of the African continent, but not necessarily with specific countries (Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Mauritania, Togo, and South Africa). As a result, leading African American modernist artists could look to any part of Africa and access materials for the purposes of conveying their unrestricted views of the continent.

Hence, within this context of deploying the media of art for the purpose of establishing cultural bonds between Africans and African Americans, Hale Woodruff's composition, The Art of the Negro: Native Forms (1950), can be seen as an image that uses the knowledge of African archeology, geography, and history in order to facilitate the relationship between its viewer and different geographical regions of Africa. This is a colossal task for anyone to accomplish, and scholars and museum curators tend to shy away from it because of the sheer size of the continent, its cultural diversity, and the historical and political differences among its multiple nations.[2] Nevertheless, in The Art of the Negro: Native Forms, Woodruff embraces the challenge and accomplishes the task of educating his audience in coded visual forms. Aside from the obvious Egyptian-inspired elements in the painting's center, the specific cultural sources of many of the image's visual elements are unfamiliar to the general public. Despite the obscurity of its elements, the painting remains strongly evocative of Africa; it achieves this by importing diverse aspects of Africa's ancient and contemporary cultures without locating these elements temporally or spatially. How is it that Woodruff's painting is able to signify "Africa" without revealing whether its elements derive from Algerian, Moroccan, Senegalese, Tanzanian, or Zimbabwean culture? And why is it that the viewer may expect to understand a sense of Africa without any knowledge of specific African cultures? The answer lies in the continent's politically ruptured history and ideologically charged social spaces.

Woodruff presents this disputed past as a tableau transporting the viewer on a pilgrimage through some of the most contested historical and geographical sites on the African continent. At the top left of the painting, six beautiful and brightly colored animals march along on their hind legs as if singing and dancing in a procession. It could be argued here that these figures in procession are indeed part of the metaphors to which Woodruff directs his American audience. He leads the eyes of his viewer towards the image in a celebratory tone that claims victory and expresses pride for Africa's cultural heritage. These animated, colorful, and joyful creatures wear masks. They march forward but look backwards, a posture that both conveys their position as leaders of the procession and implies an important connection of past to present. This reading is bolstered by the fact that masks hold several meanings in various African traditions, including their use as signifiers of the spirit of the ancestors during different ritual occasions.[3]

Although one could read these colorful creatures as fictitious characters that Woodruff deployed in order to create a composition that demonstrates certain cultural affinities with the African continent, a closer study reveals that he deliberately evoked images from ancient rock paintings found at specific sites throughout the African continent. In all likelihood, Woodruff was familiar with ancient rock painting from the caves of Tisab Gorge, Namibia in southwest Africa. Several rock paintings exist in Tisab Gorge, including the most celebrated, the White Lady of Brandberg, so named sometime after 1947 by Abbé Brueil in order to suggest that the Khosan-speaking people who inhabit the areas where the drawings exist could never have made such beautiful sketches. Brueil proposed that the drawings were made by people who came into Africa from ancient Egypt, Greece, and the Islands of Crete -- geographical areas historically constructed by the imperial imaginary as "whiter" than sub-Saharan Africa. The figures were made even more controversial as Brueil attempted to Europeanize them further by repainting the most prominent figure as a female of European origin. But the so-called White Lady of Brandberg is "certainly a male figure covered with white paint or eggshell beads."[4] This figure and its entourage depict different scenes in the lives of the ancient Khosian peoples.[5] They depict religious rituals, magical powers, hunting occasions, marriage ceremonies, initiation rites, wars, and the relationship between human beings and nature, especially the animal world. Unfortunately, Brueil was not alone in his belief; European visitors to the area in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries either dismissed the worthiness of the sketches or ascribed them to people other than Africans in order to perpetuate the myth of Africa as a continent without history or culture, thus justifying colonialist claims to its land, resources, and -- above all -- its people.

In the 1950s, as African American communities were fighting to end racial segregation in the United States, African political, cultural, and intellectual leaders in Senegal, Algeria, Tunisia, and Nigeria (to name but a few places) were equally involved in the struggle for decolonization. In order to combat the dehumanizing rhetoric and practices of segregation and colonization, they needed support from multiple points of view, including those of history and culture. A crucial aspect of this project involved recognition of the fact that the overwhelming majority of histories of Africans and African Americans that circulated in schools worldwide were the product of European scholarship. As such, the past had been interpreted and written through the filter of European dominance, and these histories often facilitated the perpetuation of the oppression of Africans through racial segregation and other cultural, educational and economic practices. The discovery of histories and of art that contradicted the idea of Africa as a "Heart of Darkness" devoid of any native history or culture, became very attractive to African American artists. As a result, the dates of the drawings discovered in African caves became cultural assets and tools for an intellectual struggle that would result in new readings of the past for Africa and for African Americans. Thus, while the exact dates of some of the cave paintings to which Woodruff makes reference are not definitive, certain tested sites reveal dates from as early as 25,000 B.C. [6] Hence, as we read Woodruff's painting and begin to understand the origins of the visual elements he used to weave the canvas together, we are alerted to the fact that we are entering a heavily contested archeological and ideological space. In other words, we are being exposed to ideas of Africa that remain the subject of intensive debates among contemporary scholars. These debates concern the ways in which African art continues to be displayed in certain major Western museums: as ethnographic objects devoid of artistic meaning and worthy only of anthropological studies.[7]

But this is just one compositional element in the painting; Woodruff did not stop there. Instead of continuing the procession of animated figures, he abruptly interrupted it, veering from Southern African archeological sites to contemporary Yoruba culture in western Nigeria, West Africa. From Yorubaland, he imported the image of Shango, the Yoruba spirit of lightening and thunder.[8] Shango is recognizable from his attributes included in the painting: the violent clouds behind him and the staff of command in his clenched right fist. Although Shango is usually represented on the finial of a staff, in this painting the serious-looking Shango is mounted on a shortened obelisk in the painting's center, a gesture which simultaneously makes him commander of the entire stage and alludes to yet another African nation, Egypt. The procession continues to the left of Shango, but the celebrants are now warriors in the form of soldiers. These waiting soldiers with their beautifully colored shields could be from the Kikuyu and Masai ethnic groups in Kenya or from the Zulu ethnic group in South Africa. Regardless, they all belong to the immediate experiences of African cultures. In addition to serving as an allusion to African warriors, the soldiers perform another function: Woodruff used them to remind us that the immediate cultural experiences of Africans and African Americans are the extensions of much older African cultures. He validated his own cultural practice by deriving the soldiers from archeological records that depict scenes of men in battle brandishing beautiful shields, throwing spears, and shooting arrows at their enemies. But on Woodruff's canvas, the warriors stand still, in anticipation of their orders.[9] They are flanked on the right margin by the minaret of a mosque, which can be traced to the African region historically known as Western Sudan. Such mosques were built as early as the fourteenth century in Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Northern Ghana, Mali, and the Niger Republic.[10] Woodruff's use of the mosque as a setting is consistent with earlier works by African American painters such as Henry Ossawa Tanner who painted several since of Egypt and Morocco including, Gate-Tangiers (1910), and Street Scene-Tangiers (1913).[11]

But the mosque is only one architectural element in the painting; Woodruff wanted to use it to instruct the viewer about the details and ornaments of traditional architecture in parts of West Africa, and to reinforce the notion that Africa's traditions are diverse. In addition, Woodruff delineates the mosque in a manner that will show the viewer how it is constructed and maintained annually. The pink surfaces of the mosque form an architectural cross-section that reveals the iron content of the red earth (the clay or adobe) from which the mosque is constructed. The spikes on the sides of the minaret and on the left wall of the mosque serve both functional and aesthetic purposes. After the mild rainy seasons of the savannah regions of West Africa, for example, parts of Mali, the people climb on the spikes in order to smooth out the surfaces of the mosque. Usually, these adobe structures have to be maintained annually at the end of the rainy seasons. As part of a tableau, this piece of adobe structure stretches across the entire width of the canvas and it is intended to reflect what scholars call the Sudanese style of architecture. The minaret flanking the soldiers and framing the blue sky at the extreme right of the picture germinates from the adobe structure. In this context, it is an historical and a cultural notation of how such mosques are marked in parts of West Africa. But there is something much more salient and powerful about the way Woodruff presents the minaret of this mosque. Throughout most of West Africa (Burkina Faso, Mali, Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Nigeria, and Niger Republic), an ancestral pillar is represented in multiple forms on portals of buildings, compounds, entrances to private homes, window frames, and on vertical elements that help to articulate the surfaces of built structures such as the minarets of mosques. These pillars symbolize essential ideas about the ancestors' compound: the pillar is also the physical representation of the ancestor progeny in built form. It confirms that the ancestors' compound would forever be perpetuated from one generation to another, and it unifies the world of the living with the world of the dead. In several cases, this symbol is emphasized with visual details of the phallus, and they are generally understood as such.[12] Woodruff is highly attentive and meticulous in how he uses this object in his painting. He wants to alert the viewer to the idea that, the mosque -- a hallmark of Islamic architecture -- upon arriving in Africa as Islam spread during the seventh century A.D., adapted to the cultural heritage of its African surroundings. Here, the minaret of the mosque assumed an architectural element of African ancestral progeny.

Understanding how Woodruff is representing the eternal presence and powers of the ancestors in this picture can help us to see how the shortened obelisks protruding into the top part of the composition upon which Shango stands is also a progeny of the ancestors heritage and it is inseparable from the adobe architecture of the mosque. This is a deliberate deletion of the temporal space and the material elements from which buildings are made. This ellipsis in time can be observed in how workmen carve inscriptions onto an adjacent pyramid, as if they had moved onto this new project after building the adobe structure. Finally, at the bottom of the canvas, we are taken back into the cave, where we find a man painting animals on its wall, a reference to the cave paintings that inspired the figures in the procession. Hence, through archeology, we are challenged to find, study, and understand the concealed paintings in the cave, hitherto, the bottom of the canvas. Here, in The Art of the Negro: Native Forms, as the name rightly suggests, Woodruff conveys to the viewer that the people who created the Sudanese style of architecture, the ancient Egyptian architectural wonders, and prepared the ancient rock paintings in Southern Africa and other parts of the continent are linked by a common history and ancestry. Above all, Woodruff paints the image of an African cultural continuum: from prehistoric times through the eras of ancient Egypt until the present in the United States. During the 1950s, when Woodruff created this artwork, the representation of an ensemble of ancient African people with a richly variegated culture was as much a political and social assertion of identity as it was an artistic one. Psychologically, such images helped to inform and boost the colonized African and the African American's sense of cultural pride, which in turn fed the struggle for social justice.

Woodruff is not the only artist who uses his knowledge of African archeology to collapse time and geographical distance in his work for the purposes of conferring a new historical consciousness upon Americans. Meta Warrick Fuller's sculpture, Ethiopian Awakening (1914), re-imagines the ancient Egyptian mummy in order to insert the artist into a history of people whose ancestors produced monumental works of art in ancient Egypt. Likewise, in Aaron Douglas's Aspects of Negro Life: The Negro in an African Setting (1934), the warriors carrying spears co-exist alongside crowned Egyptian-styled figures.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, Betye Saar's collage Lost Legends (1979) continues the tradition of quoting African monuments in modern art by incorporating aspects of Dan masks in a mystical setting, which she constructs as a site of archeological interest. To fully grasp the collage's meaning, the viewer must delve into layers and layers of history and culture. For example, a central element to the collage is a river that flows from the distant background to the foreground. On either side of the river, small streams descend into the main channel where a big crocodile swims. The feathers and six Dan masks that float on this musty blanket of weeds, leaves, and sand are essential to the figurative meanings of Lost Legends. The eyelids of the Dan masks, the center of their foreheads, their noses crossed with white chalk, and their heads covered with woven cowry shells conjure images of rituals and lost landscapes -- that is, the Lost Legends of a history broken by slavery and colonization.

There is a strong convergence in purpose between Saar's Lost Legends, Woodruff's Arts of the Negro: Native Forms, and Norman Lewis's Dan Mask (1935) and Guru Head (Handle) (1935). The creators of these artworks drew upon African archeology, history, and geography in order to mourn, retrieve, and celebrate the African and African American cultures once lost. Like Woodruff's work, Saar's Lost Legends refutes the idea of an Africa without history, and also like the Woodruff painting, it aims to bridge the ancient and the contemporary cultures of Africans and African Americans through archeology. But Norman Lewis approaches this problem of retrieving African culture from another perspective. Whereas Saar's Lost Legends looks to archeology and regrets the loss of memory, Lewis's Dan Mask and Guru Head celebrate what is recovered and propose to the viewer that memories of Africa were never lost by African Americans. The fact that today, in the year 2004, one can still go to Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, and Mali, visit Dan villages during initiation ceremonies and witness how these masquerades are performed, is a vindication of Lewis's propositions that the memories might have evolved to meet the cultural needs of contemporary African people, but they were never lost. By extension and implication, since one can still see these objects in use in certain West African villages today, Lewis's composition suggests that he imagined African culture as existing in a continuum from ancient times to the present. In addition, Dan Mask and Guru Head purport that the cultural continuity defies geography, covering vast territories and breaking philosophical and ideological boundaries: from Africa, across the Atlantic Ocean, and into the United States of America. The juxtaposition of ancient and contemporary objects enables the images to suggest that this cultural continuum is manifest in how some of the artifacts in the pictures are still actively being put in use on the continent in places like Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea. By presenting these sculptures in this manner, Lewis is affirming that cultural exchange between Africa and the United States dates back to the period when certain Africans were forced to relocate to this part of the world. These cultural exchanges between Africa, the United States, and African cultures in South America and the Caribbean, have been well documented by historians.[13] However, what has been documented is quite different from the metaphorical manner in which African American modernist artists envision the transfers of culture from Africa to the Americas.[14] Very little of the existing critical literature acknowledges any relationship between Africa's prehistoric art and the contemporary cultures of the continent, or of the connection between prehistoric African art and African American culture. Therefore, in order truly to understand the sources of inspiration for the African American artists shown in this exhibition, we must look beyond the already-documented sources of cultural exchange between Africa and the outside world.

Saar's Lost Legends helps us to fill the historical lacuna that exists between Africa's ancient traditions and contemporary culture. As with Woodruff's painting, it takes the viewer on an historical pilgrimage to the oldest sites containing artwork: the ancient caves scattered throughout Africa. Such places include but are not limited to the Sahara Desert, which spreads from the western Atlantic coast to the eastern Red Sea coast and from North Africa to West Africa, including Mauritania. Ancient rock art can also be found throughout the southern tip of Africa and in parts of the Kalahari Desert in southwest Africa and Namibia.[15] Regardless of geographical and cultural/linguistic disparities between such regions, these caves as a unit, as an idea, are where African American artists travel on their journey back towards the origins of their own art. Thus, many of the paintings presented in this exhibition convey a linear narrative in which the rock paintings grew in sophistication with the progression of time, as the societies that created them were increasingly able to meet their basic needs.

This visual construct of artistic evolution -- from cave paintings in ancient Africa to modernism in contemporary America -- can be compared to Frank Elgar's analysis of the prehistoric paintings of the Tassili in Algeria:

It seems, indeed, that the various rupestral arts of Africa were subject to identical laws of evolution....When society had arrived at a sufficient level of organization and stability, the ritual act of the prehistoric artist was superseded by the commemoration of events and hence by pictographic writing. As in Western Europe, themes changed with the development of social conditions. The man given to the practice of sorcery was succeeded by the warrior, the hunter the herdsman, the stockbreeder, by the man busy with family and community life. The artist, who at first was interested in crude elementary forms, came to concern himself with gesture, posture, movement, and the figure in action.[16]

Elgar's insights on how the works of the ancient Tassili evolved can help to elucidate how African American modernists often collapsed geographical and temporal distances in their works when they made reference to Africa. The approach adopted by these artists has sometimes posed problems for art historians and curators of African and African American art because of the sometimes rigid categories that art history imposes on the development of certain non-Western cultures by exploiting geographical and temporal boundaries as markers of racial difference, national civility, and technological progress.

By proposing cultural continuities in their work, Woodruff, Saar, and Lewis make intellectual leaps that many scholars have yet to attain. These artists rely on modern figurative representation executed with historical and archeological quotations, and in so doing, they are tackling a real unresolved historical problem -- a challenge in the waiting for scholars of all persuasions. The work of these artists also challenges museums around the world to acknowledge the contributions of African and African American artists to the various modernist movements. One can point to the fact that the September 2003 opening of The Art of Romare Bearden, the first one-person exhibition dedicated to an African American artist at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC, is a step in the right direction. Yet more work remains to be done when it comes to relating Africa's art to its ancient cultures.

With the exception of Labelle Prussin's African Nomadic Architecture Space and Gender, in which she traces how tent structures have been used in Africa from prehistoric times to the present, no other scholar has attempted to study contemporary African art as having any influence from the ancient rock arts.[17] Tom Phillips acknowledges this historical problem as follows:

There is an Africa beneath Africa, as yet only patchily understood since outside the Nile Valley archeology is still in the infancy, and even there new versions of history are beginning to be worked out. At this moment archeology is busy reversing our understanding of Ancient Nubia and its relationship with Egypt.[18]

Phillips reminds us that often, when it comes to ancient African history south of the Sahara, the dominant viewpoint is that there are no written records, and that the climatic conditions south of the Sahara are not favorable for the preservation of ancient sculptures and materials.[19] Contrary to that view, when commenting on some of the abstract ancient rock paintings that he encountered in the Tassili, Frank Elgar writes that: "here and there common stylistic conventions are encountered -- buffaloes, oxen, or antelope shown in profile.... with overlapping figures repeats that of the paintings of Nubia, Hierakonplis, Southern Rhodeisa [now Zimbabwe] and eastern Spain."[20] When describing the rock paintings of arts of Africa, Jan Vansina writes that "Indeed, ancient Egyptian art owes something to the great Saharan tradition that both preceded it and ran parallel to it for most of its history."[21]

Along this line of historical relationships that Prussin, Elgar, and Vansina propose, it could be argued that Woodruff, Saar, and Lewis use their artwork to suggest that there can be no cultural history for Africans and African Americans if such a history is not grounded in the cultures that predated Egyptian antiquity.[22] How did Woodruff, Lewis, and Saar discover this body of knowledge so central to their projects?


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