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Monday, August 07, 2006

On Convergences of Cultures, Art and Identity

© 2006 Carol Beane

On Convergences of Cultures, Art and Identity in the Black Artists of DC/BADC.

*Skunder Boghossian, quoting poet Czeslaw Milosz, “A shining light exists where all lines intersect… .”

*Flannery O’Connor, Everything that Rises Must Converge.

Cultural encounters have deeply affected the trajectories of the art of many members of the Black Artists of DC [BADC]. We are people of creativity and imagination. We are children of the African Diaspora. In addition, many have, as member Harlee Little declares, “genetic markers from undisclosed locations” —Native American Indian, Caribbean, Asian. Others, such as Gloria Kirk, have confirmed genetic markers with specifics of place and people. We share the knowledge the Middle Passage and its aftermath, however, varied its manifestations.

We have journeyed far and wide, traveling different roads of colors and hues. Color: an element of artistic creation; color conflating with race, that ambiguous biological-social construct. BADC member mixed-media artist Viola Leak remarks “dealing with the racism of the South gave me many different feelings about color. My family is a rainbow. However, I identify more with the black man in America than with the black man in Africa.”

We travel roads of shapes, forms, textures, lines, densities; different rhythms, currents and flow; differing icons and touchstones—some our own; others, not. We learn differing formulations of shadow, light, translucency. Multiplicities of implements to make marks upon surfaces—brush strokes with light; the vast variety of surfaces and materials upon which to make a line, an impression, an incision, to take a stitch. We conjure glazes and patinas; pour libations; make incantations and invocations to muse and ancestor.

We gather together the images, sensations, sounds, smells and information we find along the way of the journeys in life. They feed our creativity. We carry them with us. Some we wear; others we hide away. Others hide themselves away but remain with us, biding their time. Some we recognize and cultivate—we read; we study; we travel; we live and work abroad; we seek them out. Others we come to know more quietly, finding that they seem to cultivate us.

Affinities develop—inclinations and dispositions. For painter and mixed-media artist Gina Marie Lewis: “the geometric patterns and rhythms in Africa art as well as the simplicity of line in Asian art,” particularly Chinese and Japanese. For Michael B. Platt, printmaker/image maker: the provocative nuancing possible with a Chinese calligraphy brush used in the Japanese style of sumi [ink wash painting/drawing] on portraits of the South African peoples of the Kalahari, the San, also known as the Bushmen. We take advantage of mitigating circumstances—chance encounters; new friends and sights; books; videos; films; photographs of places we never thought to visit; an angle of shadow in a building we are accustomed to passing by but rarely enter; old photographs; images from newspapers. The deliberate happenstance we glean from the stories—the histories and herstories of the older generation whom painter Daniel Brooking, textile/mixed-media artist Cynthia Sands; printmaker/painter Claudia Aziza Gibson-Hunter and painter/collagist Amber Robles Gordon among others mention: stories from parents, family and friends; the artists and teachers; and the articulate words of the very young among us.

All these do converge in the artists’ soul and in their artwork. Most members of the BADC would concur with Harlee Little’s statement about the relation between culture, art and identity,” cultural makeup is the point of departure for all endeavors; the work is generated from this point, modified by experiences and directed toward the independent future of African thought and peoples.”

We draw from deep within self for vision and light; from deep within self to reveal darknesses to see with our own eyes, learning to see with the eyes of others, with the eyes of the “other.” Exposure to other cultures and traditions feeds an innate curiosity about life, the human condition, and one’s self that most artists strive to articulate and satisfy through their work.

Contact with other cultures can lead the artist to an increased receptivity to that which is new and different; engendering familiarity with varying sets of cultural markers and icons, such as masks—objects which fascinate so many; such as cloth with its myriad associations, significances and rituals: the processing of the fiber, the dyeing, the batiking or printing, the weaving, the wearing… . In short, any and all items that is what the artist deems to be “visually stimulating,” to use Michael Platt’s term, may serve the artist’s purpose. Many members in BADC would agree with Gina Lewis who feels “…that life unfolds through patterns, rhythms and rituals, and that these have great bearing on the creative process and product.”

Contact with the cultures of other peoples also can lead to an affirmation of what one knows is one’s own, or decides to claim as one’s own. Having lived, worked and Numerous members of BADC have traveled extensively within Africa; many others have lived and worked there. Gloria Kirk is one BADC member who spoke of those experiences as correctives to the images of Africa with which she had grown up; i.e. the North American ignorance of and disdainful disregard for the people and cultures of the African continent. Hers is now an artistic identity firmly rooted in the numerous strands of information, perceptions, and images she acquired during that phase of her life and which, increasingly, find their place in her evolving photographic imagery.

Ever conscious of being African American—some members’ artistic identity derives in part from a sense of place—Louisiana, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia—recollections of summer visits and all the things the “old folks” would say or do or talk about; family gatherings, family reunions. Some, like Cynthia Sands, create consciously as a southern woman. Or we create with an indeterminate sense of our elder generation, as with Viola Leakey, a woman, an artist, whose grandmother was from “somewhere in Mississippi and had some Cree Indian in her, [and] some unusual beliefs.” Leakey’s grandmother had an effect on her granddaughter, the artist, though Leakey’s “not just sure exactly what.” Or we create as world travelers and observers, as do some members, Daniel Brookings among them, following the routes of the stories fathers told about being in the Far East during World War II and other journeys.

For example, members such as James Brown, Gwendolyn Aqui, Francine Haskins, Cynthia Sands, Zoma Wallace and others, who work in textile traditions that in the United States connect the artist to family arts—tailoring, dressmaking, quilting, doll making—also serve as ties that bind to traditions associated with the master dyers, weavers, fabric printers and painters, for example, of Morocco, Nigeria, Ghana, Mali, South Africa and elsewhere.

Apprenticeships with master artists working with ceramics, textiles, metal, glass; or with the master photographer who handles shadows and light result in a deeper understanding of the medium and the craft—the spirit of the clay, the fiber, the metal; the luminosity of glass; the illusive challenges of light.

BADC member Gina Lewis comments that for her “what attracts most in art of any culture is the relationship between art and spirit.” Lewis is intrigued by “the ability to capture intangible nuances through visual art and to communicate with others on the level of spirit.” A high percentage of the BADC members declare non-western art/culture as a primary visual resource for their own art. The spiritual nature many perceive in it is yet another factor for those, such as Akili Ron Anderson who believe, with Lewis, that this relationship is ”one of the most authentic functions of art” and that “we are living in a time when art that moves the spirit is a necessity.”

As we learn to see, ever more profoundly we are better able to discern the many lines of life that converge, enabling artists to know and to represent their subject mater ever more clearly. Experiences with different media and techniques, textures and palate, also awaken the artist to new possibilities for working with a given material; innovative ways of conceptualizing it. Experimentation. In the hands of some BADC members like Juliette Madison and the ceramist Terry deBardelaben, clay, a medium traditionally used for vessels and containers, can become metaphor, addressing injustice, brutality, sexuality and healing.

Artists who understand their media and who are open to experimentation with new technology and information can pay homage to the coherence and continuity of material and execution of tradition—even as they extend the conventional parameters; or, sometimes, ignore them, in artworks of mixed media, found objects, collages—more fluid convergences of materials, techniques and content.

A number of the BADC members acknowledge that they do look at objects and images from many cultures in their work and indicated a preference for non-western traditional art. However, other members feel their spirit resonating most deeply and almost exclusively with African art and artifacts. Regardless of source, as Viola Leak states whateve one draws on “depends upon the ideas onewants to communicate .” The techniques the artist utilizes to achieve certain effects may also reflect a coming together of skills and imagery.

Rarely is the convergence of interests and information of the cultural encounter a matter of the artist appropriating the “foreign” cultural traditions or techniques. It is instead the artists’ insistence on mastering certain techniques so as to use them most effectively when working within the visual and conceptual vocabulary artists have created for themselves or within which they have chosen to create art.

Hip-Hop, initially considered a phenomenon, now firmly established, represents one such creation. In the case of most of the BADC conversations that gave rise to this essay, “culture” connoted ethnicity. However, “culture” also may designate a certain complex of activities, style, attitudes, postures, music, rhythms, flow, heroes/heroines, rites of passage, of being. One speaks today of a Hip-Hop culture.

Numerous younger artists who grew up with Hip-Hop during these past 15-20 years take many of its aspects as the points of departure for much of their creative activity. Visual explorations of language—Hip-Hop’s unique slang; gender issues—its taboo sexual explicitness and iconic imagery in which artists perceive both objectification and empowerment. A panoply of images, not only continues to attract artists but inspires them to create in a variety of media: the graphic arts—works on paper and canvas; photography; videos; film; fashion/textiles; metalwork/ jewelry; sculpture.

Kasha Stewart, aka Kasha Esque, is one younger BADC member who sees her images informed by Hip-Hop culture as another version of and another context for storytelling, which she claims as a particular heritage of the African Diaspora. “I love layering imagery; the similarities of my Hip-Hop generation and the contrast of the past make my work an expression of my own search for African voices while living in the Americas.”

Any consideration of Hip-Hop as an aesthetic touchstone brings with it a realization of its international dimensions and the implications of these. Travel, whether actual or virtual, confirms the global dynamism and the creative energy of Hip-Hop music and its attendant ways of being. Conversations and sessions with leading established artists about music and art lead to discoveries about the antecedents of certain rhythms, phrasings and language; historical explorations and connections—the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement—all these provide more material with which to work. Convergences of information, attitude, expression and style.

Mark Walker, another young BADC member, painter, muralist and comic book artist, turns to the groundbreaking and trend-setting Japanese culture of manga, or comic books, with their specific graphic renderings, to further stimulate his own fertile imagination. The static graphic art of the Japanese comic book has visual animation as its dynamic correspondent. The effects of comic books and animation on artistic expression is an example of an aspect of Japanese culture that has become an aesthetic bedrock worldwide. It generates creative energy that in turn creates its own momentum in much the same way that the very African American, North American, Urban Hip-Hop culture has affected the world.

The images created in this context reflect the artist’s explorations of the interplay of technology and cultural icons. Walker is attracted to the “technological developments that gave rise to the graphic images, which, for the most part, present in a highly sophisticated and adult manner themes of sexuality, identity, violence.” To these we might add injustice, survival, and empowerment. In addition, however, Walker, as some others have done, incorporates information about “science, technology, various philosophical systems, language, Baroque aesthetics” into his conflations of text/script/image.

All these, as well as personal experience, serve as Walker’s touchstones for creative activity within the structure and context of the manga culture in its DC manifestation. In this way, the comic book art exemplifies Harlee Little’s concise pronouncement on the subject of technology and art: “the language of technique, technology, iconography are drawn from many cultures, the ideas expressed belong to me and mine.”

As artists strive to create meaningful works for others and for themselves, their life experiences meld with aesthetics; with their talents; their knowledge and sense of history and being; their understanding of the significance of daily routines and the political and social conflicts and events of their times. The resources of materials and technologies— the traditional and non-traditional; and the formerly non-traditional, such as digital, now, in the 21st century, becoming the traditional—all converge in what the artist creates. Creations which, whether representational or abstract, reveal our lives and the world around us; which seek to take us beyond those crossroads where the straight lines and the right angles and the 45 degree angles come together to make their magic; beyond where the poet sees the “shining light.” ///

***Very special thanks to BADC members for the thoughtful comments about your work, your creative processes and your selves.

© 2006 Carol A. Beane


Associate Professor

Modern Languages and Literature

Howard University

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