- Feedback Between American Art and African Art History
It may seem commonplace to suggest that African art plays a role in the history of African American art. Exhibitions such as Astonishment and Power (1993) and Body Politics: The Female Image in Luba Art and the Sculpture of Alison Saar (2000) are two of many possible examples in which this connection is proposed.1 Astonishment and Power juxtaposed the work of contemporary Washington, DC–based artist Renee Stout with an array of Kongo power objects from Central Africa known as minkisi. Body Politics presented representations of the female body in Luba art as parallel to bodily representations in the contemporary sculpture of Los Angeles–based artist Alison Saar. Both exhibitions placed traditional African art alongside the work of contemporary African American artists—juxtapositions that seem logical, either by direct visual quotation of African art traditions, as seen in the work of Renee Stout, or by looser connections seen in the conceptually driven curation of the Body Politics exhibition. While a handful of critics questioned the curatorial assumptions behind these exhibitions, they point to the way in which the work of contemporary, studio-trained African American artists is often read through and against traditional African art and the extent to which these groupings can appear completely natural.2 [End Page 154]
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The deliberate use of Africa as a source of inspiration in African American art stems back to the early stages of the Harlem Renaissance. This tendency is often associated with cultural theorist Alain Locke, who began to encourage African American artists to draw upon traditional African arts in essays such as his 1925 "The Legacy of Ancestral Arts."3 Taking the cue from white European and American primitivists, Locke urged his black contemporaries to look to African art traditions in order to create an art that was distinctly African American. This call was met in works by important African American modernists such as Aaron Douglas and Hale Woodruff.
While African American modernism developed in relation to African art, in many ways this relationship was reciprocal. Since its inception, the discipline of African art history in the United States has been fueled by an assumption that black Americans share a special affinity with African art. Locke wrote extensively on African art when it was only beginning to receive scholarly attention in the West, and he organized early collections and exhibitions of African arts, including the exhibition of the Blondiau-Theatre Arts Collection in New York in 1927. Discourses about African art circulated through African American networks and African American publications such as Opportunity, which published essays on African art written by early writers on the subject, including Paul Guillaume and the prominent art collector Albert Barnes.4 These long-standing links between African American art and African art history in American artistic and academic circles are the foundation on which exhibitions like Astonishment and Power and Body Politics are built.
The assumed relationship between African American art and African art, however, is more than simply that of continuing traditions or even that of artist and source of inspiration (if such relationships could ever be suggested as simple). This article is concerned with how the relationship between traditional African art and the art of contemporary, studio-trained African American artists comes about. It seeks to understand how African art forms and practices come to be incorporated in the work of African American artists, how these new diasporic works inspire art historical interpretation read through African art history, and how such interpretations inspire what African forms come to be incorporated by African American artists.
In this respect the relationship between African American art and African art is actually a complex network that can be illuminated by the notion of feedback. Most commonly associated with the screech of a poorly orchestrated audio...