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As we saw in our lecture on Feminism, Identity politics starts to play an increasingly important role in contemporary art starting in the 1960s and 1970s. Gone are the days when we can believe art can address a Universal Truth perceived equally by all humanity. Instead, we see artwork exploring a personal or subjective experience. African Americans own one such collective experience that has produced a wealth of contemporary art, and to a larger extent, this is mirrored throughout the African diaspora.
Presence: Before it even became of interest to the contemporary artworld, the African American community had their own vibrant artistic culture. We begin by examining the work of Artists such as Bill Traylor, who was born a slave and died a free man. Untrained formally, his work continues to have a profoundly contemporary feel. We also look at the quilts produced by the community in Gee’s Bend, an artistic tradition that is passed from mother to daughter. Artists and arts communities such as these, who have always been present, have surfaced and become known to the larger arts community in recent years.
Present: Some artists who were very well versed in the contemporary art scene in the forties and fifties found inspiration both from modern artistic influences as well as from their personal cultural veiwpoint. Two such artists are Jacob Lawrence and Romare Beardon. They sought to present, in a sincere and straight-forward manner, black history and culture through narrative painting.
Represent: Other artists choose to create archetypes, or figures who stand-in to represent a larger experience, such as Kerry James Marshall’s Lost Boys, who represent the African American youth who’s childhoods have been lost in incarceration. Other artists produce objects which serve to validate the experience and pride within the community, such as David Hammonds flag for the U.N.I.A., Chakaia Booker’s abstract process art sculptures that also reference skin tones and African masks, or Chris Ofili’s large-scale paintings that immerse black pop references in an intricate web of colorful patterns.
Re-present: Another strategy for some artists is to directly confront racism and inequality by taking images from culture, re-contextualizing them, and displaying them in such a way as to make the history of oppression undeniable. This is what we see with pieces like The Liberation of Aunt Jemima by Betye Saar, or the Flag for the Moon by Faith Ringgold. Fred Wilson created meaning through juxtaposition in his series Mining the Museum, where historical objects are placed together to trace the history of racism in this country.
Re-invent: Finally we look at artists who completely reinvent history, by recombining factual and fictitious elements, and in the process produce new contexts within which we can examine our own culture. Kara Walker’s deeply psychological cutouts take archetypes from the Antebellum South and literally turn them on their ends. Kehinde Wiley infuses classical portraiture with a hip hop style in a nouveau riche time-warp redaction. Yinka Shonibare takes classical European clothing styles and represents them in colorful patterning. In so doing he traces what we think of as traditional African fabrics and shows their complicated history, as Indonesian textiles that were copied by the Dutch, made profitable by the English in sales to Africa, which in turn brought the slave trade to the Americas and increased the production of the cotton with which these fabrics were made.