- “The Congo is flooding the Acropolis”: Art, “Exhibits,” and the Intercultural in the New Negro Renaissance
In Claude McKay’s Banjo (1929), Ray recalls his experience working as a nude artist’s model in Paris. In marked contrast to McKay’s unhappy spell as a cash-strapped model in the 1920s, Ray breezily remarks that “the posing went along famously.”1 While the students “seemed interested” in what he had to say about African sculpture, Picasso, and Cézanne, their construction of him as “savage” meant that they could not countenance a black Caribbean man “getting on to civilized things” (McKay, Banjo, 130). In this scene, McKay stages the complexities of intercultural encounter, exploring fascination and spectatorship in relation to concepts of modernity and primitivism by way of an allusion to a life drawing class in a European art studio. Taking McKay’s play upon visual, verbal, and mental forms of the image as a starting point, this article examines associations between visual art and intercultural exchange, paying particular attention to representations of the display and viewing of cultural artefacts (or people, in Ray’s case) in museums and studios.
In the past decade, the dynamic interplay between word and image in the New Negro Renaissance has received considerable critical attention. A fascination with visual art among New Negro writers is suggested by a proliferation of characters who are trying to make their mark as artists. Consider, as examples, Angela Murray in Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun (1928), who pursues her artistic ambitions by passing in the bohemian world of Greenwich Village, and Wallace Thurman’s dark tale of thwarted artistic ambition, Infants of the Spring (1932), which features a whole household of aspiring artists, singers, and writers. Beyond [End Page 753] this fascination with the figure of the artist, several writers, including James Weldon Johnson, Nella Larsen, Gwendolyn Bennett, and Fauset, sought to introduce something of the immediacy of modernist visual culture into the literary domain. As Miriam Thaggert has observed, the period saw “heightened attention to and experimentation with visual and verbal techniques for narrating and representing blackness.”2 More recently, Jeremy Braddock has shifted attention to “the [modernist] collection as both form and practice,” analyzing the presentation of African American and African culture in museums, anthologies, and archives (including the Barnes Foundation and Alain Locke’s landmark volume The New Negro).3 Such an approach yields a nuanced assessment of how “cultural and institutional practices” governed “the conditions of modernism’s reception,” an issue that is a central concern in writings as diverse as Countee Cullen’s “Heritage,” Helene Johnson’s “Bottled,” and Langston Hughes’s short story “Slave on the Block” (Braddock, Collecting, 155, 3). Lena Hill pursues these connections between cultural institutions, asymmetrical power dynamics, and reception to different effect, exploring texts by Fauset, Larsen, and Anne Spencer that represent “black women poet speakers and fictional protagonists as creators of plastic art—or as individuals possessing a savvy understanding of art objects” in order to “invert the expected power dynamic of the gaze” (Visualizing Blackness, 82).
This preoccupation with the multimedia scope of early twentieth-century African American writing has emerged alongside a growing body of criticism that has documented the transcultural contours of the movement. Since the 1990s, an explicitly transnational and intercultural perspective has transformed understanding of the New Negro Renaissance, exposing a cultural and political movement that stretched from the United States to the Caribbean, Cuba, Mexico, and the Soviet Union.4 This article seeks to reconcile these critical trends, which are usually addressed in isolation, interpreting the thematic preoccupation with exhibition, display, and museums in W. E. B. Du Bois’s Dark Princess (1928), Thurman’s Infants of the Spring, and selected drawings by the Mexican caricaturist Miguel Covarrubias in relation to concepts of intercultural encounter, which are often marked by Orientalism, primitivism, or exoticism. In Banjo, Ray’s reference to “posing,” a term that is suggestive of both theatricality and transgressive sexuality, underlines the difficulty of interpreting his body. Representations of exhibition and display in New Negro Renaissance literature and visual culture, which include depictions of African American viewers of African art, put notions of cultural authenticity...