Historically, artists have always woven a thread of protest and social and political critique into our visual environment. Art created specifically as protest expanded greatly, especially in the 19th and the early decades of the 20th century. In response to the significant cultural, political and theoretical changes, groups such as Dada, acknowledging the horrors of WWI and the rise of Fascism and the Russian Constructivists, seeking a new artistic vision for a post-Czarist society, believed in the power of art as a catalyst for change.
Unfortunately, throughout Western history—both in the United States and elsewhere—artists of color have not aptly been recognized for their talents, achievements, and contributions. This has culminated in a popular history of Western art, comprised mostly of the work of white (male) artists. Until relatively recently, African American artists historically have played a small part in the production of widely-distributed or highly visible fine art in the United States, lacking the same access to arts education, opportunities or promotion as their white counterparts. This is changing in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Three successful, highly visible and outspoken African-American artists- Arthur Jafa, Kara Walker and Kehinde Wiley- incorporate historical symbols related to slavery, colonialism, and race relations into their works, questioning and challenging traditional narratives of power and social hierarchy and the historical role of art as a symbol of status.
A much longer and more detailed discussion of the relationship between racism, slavery, white supremacy and artists’ responses to it over time can be found on the Agora website, in the article: Slavery, Racism and White Supremacy: The Artists’ Response. It includes historical and contextual background of African slavery to North America, its fallout and impact on race relations in the United States, that culminates in the works of Jafa, Walker and Wiley.
“The question is how come we can't be as black as we are and still be universal? How come we have to refuse who we are in order for someone to be able to be able to identify with us? How come the audience can't see themselves in that thing, whether or not it looks just like them or not? It's what black people do because most of what we see are white people. It's what women have developed the muscle to do because mostly what they see are men. It's what gay people are able to do because mostly what they see is heteronormative stuff. It's a muscle that everybody needs to develop: the ability to see themselves in someone else's circumstances without having to paint that person white, make that person straight, or a man.”
Arthur Jaffa is an artist, filmmaker and cinematographer. His films, artifacts and installations “reference and question the universal and specific articulations of black being.” Jafa’s practice asks a recurring question: “how can visual media, such as objects, static and moving images, transmit the equivalent power, beauty and alienation embedded within forms of black music in US culture?” (MCAChicago, n.d.)He sees a disconnect between the broad multi-cultural popularity of black music and a lack of acknowledgement in other forms of black expression. He simultaneously explores history and contemporary African-American visual culture, most often in highly layered and intercut video pieces.
Jafa incorporated the Confederate battle flag in two related pieces- Black Flag (2017) and Black American Flag 1.0 (2017)
The tactile, hand-sewn Confederate Flag Black Flag (2017) is sewn out of black cloth, embedding the flag in Blackness, which it historically is a symbol against. (Moderna Museet, 2021) In Jafa’s very powerful 2019 show A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions at Prague’s Rudolfinium gallery (which I went to twice and was mesmerized) art critic Max Feldman remarked, “The flag’s cross-and-stars pattern is only revealed, like a hideous secret code, when the viewer adjusts their bodily position. (2019)
In a similar way he created Black American Flag 1.0 (2017) where the classic United States flag, a banner of stars and stripes has been blackened and suspended behind a massive Confederate Flag. The typical symbol of democracy and freedom has been relegated to cowering in the dark. Jafa has symbolically inverted the structure of power.
“I think really the whole problem with racism and its continuing legacy in this country is that we simply love it. Who would we be without the “struggle”?"
Kara Walker, explores issues of race in her work, address the prevailing history of racism in the United States, looking to expose the ongoing and tragic legacy of slavery. She has gained national and international recognition for her cut-paper silhouettes depicting historical narratives haunted by sexuality, violence, and subjugation.
She often uses the expression of large-scale installations re-imagining scenes of the Antebellum South using silhouette cutouts, referencing both the popularity of that medium before the Civil War and referencing the cycloramas, popular in the late 19th century. She noted: “I had a catharsis looking at early American varieties of silhouette cuttings,” she said. “What I recognize, besides narrative and historicity and racism, was very physical displacement: the paradox of removing a form from a blank surface that in turn creates a black hole.” (Walker Art Museum, 2012)
Fons Americanus, recreates the image of an historical monumental fountain, weaving an allegorical tale of the narrative of the transatlantic slave trade. It is inspired by the Victoria Memorial in London, but can also be associated with the role of monumental statuary (specifically to Confederate monuments created by the United Daughters of the Confederacy), as historical symbols of power, colonialism and white supremacy. Walker’s fountain inverts the usual function of a memorial and questions narratives of power. It explores the interconnected histories of Africa, America and Europe, especially in the context of the transatlantic slave trade.
She uses water as a key theme and the larger fountain is an extended metaphor of the Black Atlantic. “The Black Atlantic is a term first used by the historian Paul Gilroy to acknowledge how the legacy of transatlantic slave trade has shaped the development of Black identity and culture in America and Europe.” (Tate, 2019) She alludes to the tragedy of the millions of slaves who died in transit on the dangerous journeys through the Middle Passage and the absence of this story from accounts and depictions of this history. (Tate, 2019)
Other figures and details of the piece reference the imagery of violence, as well as reinterpretation of iconic pieces of European art.
One very direct example of this violence is Walker's sculpture of the tree with a noose hanging from a branch. It evokes images of the frequent lynchings of African-Americans by white supremacists, especially in the post Civil-war era.
Sometimes called the “Negro holocaust,” between 1882 and 1968, at least 3,446 black people were lynched in the United States. Blacks accounted for 72.7 percent of all recorded lynchings, even while they represented no more than 12 percent of the population during that period. (NAACP, 2021). “Lynching” means to put to death by mob action without legal approval or permission, but in the United States it is very specifically associated with death by hanging.
The piece is crowned by the figure of Venus, a mythical figure depicted in countless historical pieces of painting and sculpture. Here, Walker has inverted the association of the black Venus, referencing Thomas Stothard’s 1801 etching The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies. Triton, the Greek god and messenger of the sea, carries the British flag triumphantly and guides a black slave recast in the image of Venus, propelled by cherubs across the waters. The image was used as a form of propaganda to promote the transatlantic slave trade. (Tate, 2019). It is likely that Stoddard was inspired by Sandro Botticelli’s 1485 Renaissance painting The Birth of Venus, part of the canon of white, European art history. Here, Walker has put the figure of an African woman as a regal queen, priestess or mother, again, challenging the historical omission of black people represented in positions of power.
“In these toxic times art can help us transform and give us a sense of purpose. This story begins with my seeing the Confederate monuments. What does it feel like if you are black and walking beneath this? We come from a beautiful, fractured situation. Let’s take these fractured pieces and put them back together.”
Kehinde Wiley’s works challenge the “norms” of race, gender, and the history of the Euro-centric art of power and privilege. Wiley’s signature portraits of everyday men and women reference specific paintings by Old Masters, replacing the European aristocrats depicted with contemporary black subjects, drawing attention to the absence of African Americans from historical and cultural narratives.
The subjects in Wiley’s paintings often wear sneakers, hoodies, and baseball caps, gear associated with hip-hop culture, and are set against contrasting ornate decorative backgrounds that evoke earlier eras and a range of cultures.
His large-scale figurative paintings "quote historical sources and position young black men within that field of power", repositioning black youth within the classical European tradition of power and status, especially the tradition of monumental portraiture. (Brooklyn Museum, 2015)
Richmond, Virginia was once the capitol of the Confederacy. For over a hundred years, five massive Lost Cause equestrian sculptures of Confederate heroes, were positioned along Monument Avenue, an elegant thoroughfare in the heart of the city.
In June, 2020, protesters tore down the statue of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy. The next month, three more statues were removed by the mayor’s orders- those of Stonewall Jackson Matthew Fontaine Maury, and famed general J.E.B. Stuart.
Before those monuments were removed, Wiley conceived the idea for the statue, Rumors of War, inspired by the 1907 J.E.B. Stuart statue. As with the original sculpture, the rider- a young, African-American with dreadlocks, torn jeans and high-top Nike sneakers- sits heroically upon a powerful horse. The bronze sculpture both makes an ironic commentary on the place of public massive monuments to Confederate war heroes, and commemorates African American youth lost to contemporary social and political strife. This is Wiley’s first monumental public sculpture, but similarly to his painting works, which question the relationships of Euro-centric power and status, he expands this to the question of historic race relations and their symbols “while directly engaging the national conversation around monuments and their role in perpetuating incomplete histories and inequality.” (VMFA, 2019)