African Americans sold in the early slave markets of the New World were brought mostly from West Africa where the arts were highly developed. Their languages were articulated with such controlled variations of tone and timing that spoken words could easily be made into songs which gained rhythm from measured repetition—a universal folk-device which we know in the blues and spirituals.
Wood-carvers, banterers and metalworkers supplied the necessary images, totem animals and other objects; weavers and designers of applique’ dressed the gods in fine clothes by making the special costumes required for cult ceremonies. Thus, the products of visual arts were universals in tribal life.
In tracing the antecedents of American art, conventional art histories focus on Egypt, then move northward and eastward through Mesopotamia, Crete, Greece, then to Rome, England, and America. This is one way art influences have reached this country, however it ignores the numerous contributions made by sub-Sahara Africa to American culture. This neglect is tragic in the case of African American youth. One cannot fully understand his present, nor control his future, without knowing something about his past. African Americans have been unaware of their ancestral heritage for too long.
The African interior remained “the dark continent” until the nineteenth century, because it was unexplored and unknown to Europeans. The Christian missions and colonists that followed exploration encouraged a “condescending” attitude toward African culture and did nothing to change popular misconceptions about the continent.
It was not until in recent years that the long history and culture of Black Africa began to be realized. Early travelers accounts had given hints of the fabulous luxury of African kingdoms such as ancient Ghana, but few people read about them. Learning and culture were kept alive in Africa while Europe was obscured in its Dark ages. Although the Atlantic slave trade, and later colonialism were to bring a cultural eclipse to Africa, this cannot erase the fact that there were many highly developed cultures that compared favorably with those of Europe at that time.
Until the twentieth century, most people believed that the African American had no past worth mentioning. His ancestors came from such scattered parts of Africa that none of his cultural inheritance could have survived. The anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits, who called this misconception “the myth of the Negro past,” did much to dispel it in his book of the same name. African American scholars such as Dr. W.E.B. Dubois, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, and Dr. John Hope Franklin also helped to shed light on the African American past.
The rise of new African nations and the presence of African diplomats and scholars in this country have created interest in African history and culture. These and other factors have brought about an encouraging change in attitudes and an appreciation for African art forms. In spite, of this knowledge of Africa remains fragmentary and there seems to be little understanding of the full relationship of Africa to American art and culture.
When discussing the cultural traditions brought to this country by African Americans, we must consider the area from which they came. This region was a narrow strip of Atlantic coastline extending from the Senegal River on the north to the southern desert, called the Guinea Coast. The African interior played a minor role in the slave trade. The greatest distance inland from which slaves were brought has been estimated as few hundred miles. A ready supply of slaves was conveniently located close to the coast.
Most African Americans did not reach America via the east coast ports of Africa. The earliest firsthand report of this comes from a Greek mariner’s guide, “The Periplus of the Erythraen Sea”, written about 60 A.D. From this and other evidence we are told such east coast trading centers as Pemba and Kilwa Islands, traded mainly with eastern markets from the Red Sea to China and Ceylon. The records show that slaves were never a major item of export along this coast until the brief but bloody Arab slave trade from Zanzibar in the nineteenth century. Then, because of the international treaty banning the slave, many slavers from Europe or America sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to avoid men of war patrolling the Guinea Coast. This was so late in the history of the Atlantic slave trade that the number of east coast blacks involved was small.
Although few African peoples were spared some tribute of slaves, it is to the west coast that we look for the major cultural contributions to America. This geographical distinction is extremely important when we consider the artistic achievements of African-Americans The region from which most black slaves were brought was one in which artist-craftsman were highly regarded and where some of the world’s finest art was produced, including figure sculpture which has made African art famous.
Transplanted to America, the African had less opportunity as well as motivation for artistic expression. Deprived of “god” and king, his art no longer served the world of the spirit and he had to content himself with serving man. He did this with skill and with as much creativity as was possible within restrictive bonds of slavery. He was aided by the fact that in Africa his works of art had been bound by traditional patterns and rules. He was accustomed to finding individual ways of expressing himself within bounds.
Although the craftsperson was stripped of his physical possessions and cultural content, the African slave was not be stripped of his talent. He carried with him his expert skills and artist sensitivity. Most importantly, he carried his capacity to adapt to changing circumstances, a quality that resulted in the development of new motives for artistic expression. These were to enrich both his life and the lives European Americans with whom he would make his home.
Art objects such as masks and figure sculpture served religious and social needs of African societies. This need was no longer present in the West-oriented society of the New World. However, creating handicrafts that served a utilitarian purpose was the most common route to creativity open to African American artisan. Although it was a creative outlet, creating handicrafts denied the African-American artisan an important emotional and spiritual means of expression. Centuries past the African had excelled in producing beautiful functional articles for his own use or trade.
The pre-industrial culture to which the African was first introduced in America held the expert craftsman in great respect. Because of the difficulty of importing goods from Europe, Americans depended on locally made utilitarian objects. Everything was needed and quickly, and the well-trained, highly skilled African craftsmen worked side-by-side with his European counterparts in satisfying that demand.
Although this new culture was alien to the African slave, the work was familiar because the materials available for artistic expression were often identical to those he used in Africa—wood, metal, natural fibers, animal products, clay and many of the old-country techniques could be applied without making changes. The African artist-craftsman also assimilated European ideas and techniques and melded them with those of his forefathers.
The process of creative synthesis continued in this country as it had across the ocean, where the African had borrowed much from other cultures. He borrowed from conqueror, conquered, from new neighbors or traders and ancestors. He also invented. Through this invention and adaptation, he developed new cultures of his own.
As early as the eighteenth century records show African Americans, both slave and free, worked in the fields of painting, woodcarving, gold or silversmithing, engraving or wood-block printing. Although, these vocations were regarded as functional at the time, they offered more scope for the creative talents of the artist-craftsman than did making of articles for use for the plantation.
As the nineteenth century wore on, more African Americans became distinguished painters and sculptors, however few achieved the recognition or acceptance which they deserved. Most of them experienced racial bias. Some were so embittered by racism that they became expatriates. Despite difficulties encountered by all artists everywhere, and the additional handicap of racism, they succeeded to a remarkable degree.
The works of these artists followed the mainstream of art. At first, it was somewhat stiff and formal and later over-sentimentalized. This reflected the trend of the times, which turned from eighteenth-century formality to nineteenth-century Romanticism in reaction to the ugliness produced by the Industrial Revolution. The trend toward realism that developed near the end of the nineteenth century started to bring out the individuality of the African-American artist as he turned to subjects close at hand.
The racial pride started by the “New Negro” movement of the 1920’s produced an exciting collection of African-American art. The black artist discovered, through it, greater pride of race and accomplishment. The black artist also began to achieve the recognition he so rightfully deserved.
Today the African-American is producing work in every field of art, out of various material from junk to electronic equipment, and many styles and techniques. More and more African-American artists of all races are producing beautiful, sophisticated, contemporary art in a variety of media and making rich contributions to the field of functional art.
America is a blend of many different cultures. This is also true of the modern African-American artist. American education, unfortunately, has stressed his European heritage and not his African. In spite of improved awareness of the outstanding role of African Americans, their artistic work remains greatly ignored and unappreciated today, except in music and the performing arts.
It is necessary to gain an understanding of African- Americans’ background in order to fully appreciate the valuable contributions made by the black artists to our American culture. It incumbent upon us to learn about the slave artisans who made the most of whatever opportunities for self-expression came in their direction. We must also discover the impact of Western cultural traditions on African-Americans during three hundred years since they first landed in America. We must also return to the African-Americans’ beginnings in Africa.
As more and more artists set-up their own studios where others could be trained, American art began to develop its distinct characteristics. In the early days of American painting, many artists were self-taught, which may account for the variety and freshness of their work. It is in this setting that we first distinguish one or two black artists by name.
African-American artists tried to express a message of lasting interest that grew out of their American experience. It is because each artist’s personal experience differed from the others’ that their works have an individual character that is best understood and appreciated when we learn something of the varied lives of the artists. These experiences had a profound influence on the direction of their work.
African-American artists had to depend on the enlightened attitudes of a few individuals until patrons of abolitionist groups and the Freedman’s Bureau gained prominence in the nineteenth century. Even the talented free African-Americans were subject to all the legal restrictions, social disgrace associated with the slave system. European colonists had rationalized, in order to justify the system, that by nature, temperament, pigmentation and civilization the African-American’s natural lot was slavery and he was not fit for anything else, including art.
During colonial days the African-American artist was regarded as something of a curiosity. Since nineteenth-century colonists regarded art as the ultimate expression of a civilized people, African-American artist who identified himself with the creative arts was making a false claim. A few African-Americans of outstanding drive and ability, managed to become artists in spite of the odds. Scipio Moorhead and Joshua Johnston have left their work as evidence. They came from all walks of life and different parts of the United States. Moorhead was a slave in New England. Johnston was a free black in New Orleans.
An advertisement from a Boston newspaper is typical of the scanty information found about the majority of African-American artists before the twentieth century:
Negro artist. At McLean’s Watch-maker, near Town-Hall, is a Negro man, whose extraordinary genius has been assisted by one of the best Masters in London; he takes faces at the lowest rates.
What was the name of this “extraordinary genius”? How did he manage to obtain an art education in London? Where are his paintings now? The artist mentioned in the ad was an exceptional African-American because few of his race had the advantage to study in Europe. Most were self-taught or had received limited instruction from a patron.
Additional information has been revealed to us about another artist G.W. Hobbs, a Methodist minister who lived in Baltimore around 1784. It is possible that he painted the pastel portrait of Richard Allen, the first bishop of the African Methodist Church. We do not know that Hobbs had established himself in that area. Later, under the leadership of Bishop Daniel Payne, this church became a patron of the arts and did much to encourage talented young African-Americans.
More documentation is available in the nineteenth century on African-American art compared to the colonial period. However, there are still gaps. The work of Robert M. Douglas, Jr. is an example. There is much that is known about his life, however his art has completely vanished. Portraits painted by two African-American artisans named Vidal and Wilson were exhibited in Philadelphia in 1852. They are mentioned as being “very creditable”.
Three other Philadelphia artists were known about the same time as Douglass: William H. Dorsey, John P. Burr, and J.G. Chaplin. Few examples of their work have survived. In addition, the merits of Nelson Primus, A.B. Wilson and Gerritt Loguen remain unknown because few of their works can be found. One black painter, Alexander Pickhil of New Orleans, destroyed nearly all his work in disgust over adverse criticism.
When one considers the difficulties of historical research, and the hardship of identifying the work of artists who many times left pieces unsigned, it is surprising that there are any authentic examples of eighteenth or nineteenth century African-American art. Fortunately, there are some works by African-Americans during this period that have survived.
One artist whose work did survive is Henry Tanner, who was awarded the French Legion of Honor and was the first African-American to be elected a full member of the National Academy of Design in America.
Self-taught painters and sculptors, or “folk artists,” turned out work that is called “primitive” because of its lack of professional technique. However, technical excellence in these artistic efforts is more than compensated for by their fresh and original approach and the variety and interest of the subject matter. There is a painting of a horse on one wall, at Stratford Hall, in Virginia. According to tradition, it was done by a slave girl. No one knows her name, nor the circumstances in which it was painted. Also Harley, a slave in South Carolina, was moved to paint the battle of Fort Sumter. And he did a watercolor of the interior of the fort with its neat rows of quarters.
Two runaway slaves also turned their hands to painting. One, whose name is not known, painted a small oil portrait of A Banjo Player as a gift for the man who helped him escape. Joe, a runaway slave who was employed as a handyman and clerk in a grocery store in Milwaukee, Wisconsin painted a portrait of the grocer’s small daughter and son after his escape.
There may be countless examples of work by African-American painters hanging unnoticed in private collections throughout the country. If only they could be recorded and made available to experts for study, many unidentified African-American artists might be discovered.
J. Hall Pleasants produced enough clues to identify Joshua Johnston’s work. As a result, numbers of unknown examples of art works were discovered. A painting by David Bustill, the nineteenth-century African-American artist, was recently identified from a photograph. This picture which, had been clearly signed and dated, laid unnoticed in a National Park Service museum. Park Service officials valued it for its subject matter and knew nothing of Bustill except that he was a Negro.
One untapped source of African-American art my be the family portraits owned by African-Americans. Cedric Dover recognized that such paintings should be sought and studied. He believed them to be numerous and cited the Metoyer portraits at Melrose in Natchitoches, Mississippi, as examples. One is signed by Feuville, but whether he was a Frenchman or an African-American is not known. The other two are unsigned.
Regardless of on going investigations results, we know a number of Master African-American artists to whom African-Americans can point with pride.
The following are selected distinguished African-American Masters of American Art.