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  • Visualizing Africa in Nancy Cunard’s Negro Anthology (1934)
  • M.G. Shanahan


As a manifesto of her sympathies for black liberation and communist politics, Nancy Cunard’s Negro Anthology (1934) represents a complex image of “the Negro” with contributions from “some 150 voices of both races.”1 The enormous book (855 pages) was not widely distributed at the time of its publication and it has never been republished in its entirety, yet it represents a major collection of the leading figures of the African Diaspora, artistic and literary avant-garde and left in the 1930s. Although it has been claimed as an end point to the Harlem Renaissance,2 its impact on thinking about African art has been largely underestimated. The most recent edition, published over thirty years ago by Hugh Ford, cut the book in half and edited most heavily from the sections on Africa. The discussion of African art, entitled “Negro Sculpture and Ethnology,” was Part II of the African section and the last and longest part of the book, yet very few of the images or essays about were republished in the Ford edition. While other early publications on African art have been included in contemporary histories of colonialism, Cunard’s Negro Anthology remains little known.

Cunard’s anthology placed African liberation movements and African art at the center of its concerns. Cunard was, as Jane Marcus has written, “a living network, a one-woman permanent walking demonstration against racism and fascism, and a celebrant of black culture in all its forms.”3 Alan Warren Friedman describes the Negro Anthology as “part plea for racial justice, part history of black suffering, part demonstration of extraordinary black achievement against enormous odds . . . the great, multifarious centerpiece of Cunard’s life’s work.”4 In her foreword to the anthology, Cunard describes the aim of Negro Anthology as a record of the “struggles and achievements” of the African diaspora and argues that photography is an important tool in this project. As evidence of the struggles, the anthology uses documentary photography to represent the working class and political causes of the time such as the Scottsboro case. As evidence of the achievements, the anthology relies heavily on portraits of Harlem notables and African art. In her preface, Cunard wrote: “Reader, had you never heard of or seen any African sculpture I think the reproductions in this part would suggest to you that the African has a superb and individual sense of form and equal genius in his execution.”5 That Cunard called attention to African sculpture in her foreward indicates how important it was to her as evidence of achievement, intelligence, and genius. Thus, a significant component of Cunard’s plea for justice and documentation of achievement was the enormous collection of photographs and articles on African art.

This section on African art was in 1934 probably the single largest source of images of African sculpture that had been published up to that time suggesting Cunard’s intent to represent achievement through the diversity and quantity of production. Its impact has been underestimated due to the limitations of its distribution, but the contributors who received copies clearly used it as a model for future publications. The anthology contains photographs of over one hundred and fifty African masks, reliquaries, staffs, thrones, and other objects and drawings of over fifty items from ten museums and fourteen private collections, and accounted for approximately half of the illustrations in the book. But it was not only the Negro Anthology’s size that caused it become a model but also its essays vaunting African art as a major contribution to world culture. Earlier publications readily lent themselves to formalist ahistoricism by foregrounding the object with little commentary. Contributors to the Negro Anthology, such as Paul Guillaume who had written Sculptures nègres (1917), or Charles Ratton, who had written Masques africains (1931), included little text in their earlier books and less than thirty illustrations each. Only later did other contributors to the Negro Anthology produce major visual-textual treatises on African art, such as Carl Kjersmeier’s four-volume Centres de style de la sculpture nègre africaine (1935–38), Ladislas Szesci’s (also spelled...

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