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Art as Protest What the Black Arts Movement Can Teach Today’s Artists

The visibility of art makes it a powerful means of agency to reach audiences’ consciousness. The legacy of the Black Arts movement teaches that art need not singularly perform the function of the aesthetic or of utility. Rather, it can toe the line between both in its exploration and representation of the human condition.

For centuries, the intersection of ethics and aesthetics in art has been a subject of interrogation. Today, artists, black artists in particular, continually situate themselves at this intersection of art for beauty and didactic utility, producing works that embody both characteristics. The contemporary art world is a world of possibilities to use varying mediums to reflect or influence social change.

Writing about socially-engaged contemporary art in Africa, Kristina Bekenova explains how contemporary artists increasingly make use of installations, combining techniques and performances and relying on metaphorical analogies in their art. British-Nigerian Artist, Yinka Shonibare’s installations use Dutch wax to make statements about empire and human relations with the environment. Ghanaian Artist, El Anatsui, repurposes milk tins, wood and aluminium plates into carvings and sculptures to critique modern consumerist tendencies. Tunisian artist, Meriem Bouderbala, explores femininity and gender in her paintings; while Kenyan, Peterson Kamwathi, investigates Africa’s cultural backgrounds in his sculptures. In the works of these artists and many others, we see again the conscious use of art as a tool to reflect upon the human experience and examine human spatial relations.

Nigeria has a storied history of visual art used for various purposes. Today’s Nigerian artists are experimenting with non-traditional techniques and mediums of art. Nkwocha Ernest, an artist recently featured on BBC News Africa, makes stunning sculptures from discarded tyres, repurposing these non-biodegradable materials that litter Nigerian streets. Hyperrealism, a relatively new art form, has become pervasive amongst young Nigerian artists, popularized by its detailed portrayal of its subjects and triggering online debates regarding its artistic merits.

As Nigerian artists experiment with new materials and techniques in the production of art, it is essential to remember that the social message of art can be equally versatile. As Nigeria, and even the African continent, faces uncertainties and instabilities like conflicts, increasing poverty rates, health outbreaks and visible backlash against LGBTI identities, there is sufficient material for the socially conscious artist to engage with and critique. This, however, is hardly the first time that artists have had an opportunity to apply new methods to engaging with the social ills of the day, and there are antecedents to look to. Black artists have done this over the years, especially in the context of the American Civil Rights movement.

In the 1960s, the yearning to create a counteractive force against the overwhelming racial oppression America’s African American population faced gave birth to the Black Arts movement. This is what African American scholar and contributor to the movement, Larry Neal, called the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. Black periodicals and art of the movement reflected American cultural attitudes on the one hand and helped to shape them on the other. Artists of the Black Arts movement combined militancy and pragmatism to develop an organization that had both political and artistic awareness at its core. In aligning themselves with an oppressed group—African Americans—the artists’ creations gave a reality to their oppression that its mere existence did not possess.

Many artists and bohemians from the nineteenth century onwards advocated ‘L’art pour l’art’, electing to make and appreciate art for its own intrinsic value alone, without confounding it with emotions like love, pity or patriotism. They considered these emotions entirely foreign to art. On the black front, however, people like Senegalese poet and politician, Léopold Sédar Senghor, were championing the cause to use black arts for social engineering with the Negritude movement. For black people fighting the battle for their lives in the pungently racist America of the early twentieth century, art and the platform it afforded could not merely be for art’s sake; it had to carry the voice of millions of stifled black voices to whom America had turned its deaf ear. In the vein of Aime Cesaire’s declaration, ‘Who am I? Who are we? What are we in this white world?’, African Americans could not afford to be apolitical in their art in a white world that refuted black intellectualism, autonomy, and humanity. In the 1920s, Black America had new opportunities due to the twin miracles of the Harlem Renaissance, which provided a space to practice art freely, and the advent of electrical recording, which made it easier to produce and reproduce art. Artists of the time fully intended to utilize these new advantages.

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In 1926, in a speech he delivered at the Annual Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the African American civil rights activist, W. E. B. Du Bois, made the famous statement, ‘All art is propaganda and ever must be’. Du Bois’ ‘Criteria for Negro Art’, the name under which the speech was printed in the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), The Crisis, came at a period of debate about the political inclination of the Harlem Renaissance. Pure artistic expression was supposed to be devoid of racial connotations, of ‘propaganda’, a pejorative term used to discredit black artists who pointedly depicted racism and/or exhibited racial dignity in their literary and artistic productions. The Harlem Renaissance was forged with the intention to promote black aesthetics, what Bell Hooks describes as ‘a way of inhabiting space, a particular location, a way of looking and becoming.’ Black Americans’ production of art would signify, according to Du Bois, the ‘stirrings of the beginning of a new appreciation of joy, of a new desire to create, of a new will to be’. Art would be a means of reinventing and saturating the material world with new meaning, a meaning to be dictated by black people, a portrayal controlled by them. Through the paintings, music and poetry of the time, they created a new mythologizing apparatus through which to imagine the black person with dignity and pride.

At the time in America, the act of producing art for black people was radical. Through the slave spirituals and the blues and jazz of the Harlem Renaissance, black artists staged a resistance against systems that kept black people out of public institutions of learning and living. Black art was also a repudiation of the prevailing sentiments that art was inferior because it was done by ‘colored’ people. Du Bois, in his speech, cites an example of the ‘colored’ woman in Chicago, a great musician who had intended to study at Fontainebleau but had found the application form read, ‘I am a white American and I apply for admission to the school’. He tells the story of a woman sculptor who moulded in her room because she was not welcome in any art school in New York. ‘This girl is working her hands off to get out of this country so that she can get some sort of training’, Du Bois says. African American art was revolutionary, in both its conception and in practice, as it countered narratives of black people as being only Uncle Toms, mammies, good ‘darkies’ and clowns. Du Bois realised the power of images and narratives as they are presented in plays and novels and other forms of artistic representation. Black artists, through their art, would (re)create and imagine a means to enter the world and the lives of black folk for coming generations that they could be proud of. Their art would answer Du Bois’ question, ‘what would people in a hundred years say of black Americans?’. Art for African Americans would be protest, speaking back, and self-representation.

The Black Arts movement especially embodied this combination of ethics and aesthetics. It was formally established with the opening of the Black Arts Repertory Theater in Harlemin 1965 by poet and leading proponent of the movement, Amiri Baraka. Among its members were poets, Sonia Sanchez, Haki R. Madhubuti, Nikki Giovanni, Carolyn M. Rodgers, Etheridge Knight, and playwright, Ed Bullins. Music was a great influence on the movement, which cited non-literary models, especially musical ones, as antecedents in a tradition of authentic black expression. Their observation was that black musical forms like jazz and blues were more profound expressions of black particularity than the existing black literature. Jazz musicians like John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk were thus partners within the Black Arts movement. Its leaders, cultural nationalists themselves, churned out literary works performed at rallies and universities and published in black periodicals of the time.

For scholar Larry Neal, the Black Arts movement eschewed protest literature, birthing a new body of poetry called ‘Black Poetry’. Characterized by their rapid-fire delivery, poetry of the Black Arts movement was overtly political, and employed call and response, percussive sounds and rhythms to emphasize the spoken rather than written word. Nikki Giovanni, poet, writer and activist of the Black Arts movement, writes in Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-Five Years of Being a Black Poet:

Poetry is the culture of a people. We are poets even when we don’t write poems; just look at our life, our rhythms, our tenderness, our signifying, our sermons and our songs… The new Black Poets, so called, are in line with this tradition. We rap a tale out, we tell it like we see it; someone jumps up maybe to challenge, to agree.

For David Henderson, a co-founder of the movement, Black Arts poets incessantly proclaimed the miraculous discovery that black people are poems. In his Understanding the New Black Poetry, he expressed that these poets situated themselves in African American culture using vernacular performance and incorporating slangs, idioms and black cultural references to create a communal form of literature to be enjoyed in their performance. The emphasis was on listening to and interacting with the poems rather than reading them. Artists like Neal openly shunned the more docile and cultivated form earlier poets used in their works, writing that poets must learn to sing, dance, and chant their works.

Different from the writings of previous writers like James Baldwin and Richard Wright, Black Arts writing addressed itself primarily to a black audience. As the writers deliberately wrote outside of European literary conventions, they needed to create new forms and techniques and become inventive in their usage of oratory and literary devices. Nowhere was this deviation from standardized Western models of poetry more evident than in the poetry of Amiri Baraka, formerly known as LeRoi Jones. A critic and educator, Baraka centred his work on the communal, the community of black people, and not in the usual lyricized way that could alienate the reader uninterested in such tropes or the rhetoric of the generalized ‘public’ persona. This focus on the collective is present even when Baraka uses the personal pronoun ‘I’. Rather than referring to the individual, Baraka uses ‘I’ in the universal sense as French philosopher Renée Descartes did. In ‘In Négritude’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Souleymane Bachir Diagne writes, ‘Who am I?’ is a question Descartes posed, and a reader of the French philosopher naturally understands such a question to be universal, and the subject who says ‘I’ here to stand for any human being.’  In a similar manner, in Baraka’s work, the ‘I’ subject stands for any human being.

Baraka was a radical political artist who invited his peers to embrace their isolation from mainstream America and refuse to produce works that scramble for the approval of a white audience. He held a disdain for the formalist aesthetics and literary conventions of formal, rhythmized poetry, which to him and his peers evinced a Euro-American cultural sensibility. Neal also criticized this sensibility as anti-black and, therefore, anti-human. He, like many other Black Arts artists, felt that a Euro-American sensibility dominated the psyches of black artists and individuals, and needed to be eradicated before the black artist could attempt any meaningful transformation of society. For them poetry was meant to have purpose. As Baraka wrote in his poem, poems were physical entities: fists, daggers, and poems that shoot guns.

For the Black Arts movement, art became a tool for seizing power and claiming space. Deliberate articulation of a ‘Black aesthetic’ as it was constructed by its artists and critics was an effort to establish an unbreakable link between artistic creation and revolutionary politics. It was about galvanizing the most powerful resources of the oppressed, their voices, to serve as friction against the racist government of 1960/70s America. The poets were urgent in their agitation, demanding immediate attention to their demands. Like Audre Lorde says in her poem, Power:

The difference between poetry and rhetoric
is being ready to kill
yourself
instead of your children. (1-4)

The Black Artists sought to militantly redefine American social consciousness for black people, especially future generations. They wanted to start a legacy of intellectualism that would centre and reach more black audiences than the secure academics who theorized from afar and weren’t as knowledgeable about the day-to-day workings of the lives of black citizens. To do this they offered outlets for black literary artists to publish and perform their works and favoured more verbally effective modes of narration. Their works opened new possibilities of artistic expression and experimentation that insisted on the validity and complexity of black experience, self-identification and self-determination.

Much like the Black Power movement, Black Arts was not without its flaws, one of which was its relegation of women to the background. In her essay, ‘Black Feminism, The Ancestors Speak, and the Women of the Black Arts’,Kim McMillion suggests that the movement was kicked off by Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. The play, the first by a black woman to ever be produced on Broadway, upheld the visual tenets of the ‘Black is Beautiful’ movement. The idea that Amiri Baraka started Black Arts with his exodus from the Lower East Side is also not without its critics. McMillon writes that Amina Baraka, Amiri Baraka’swifeand prominent feminist, takes issue with the narrative that her husband started Black Arts. Amina Baraka believed it to have started in the 1950s, citing the work of others including women like the Grandassa Models and Abbey Lincoln.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, for a movement known for its hypermasculinity, sexism was a highly criticized feature of Black Arts. Amiri Baraka’s treatment of women in his poem, Black Art, which served as the guidebook of the movement, corroborates this point. He refers to women as ‘girdlemamma mulatto bitches’ and ‘stinking whores’ and situates the movement in the masculine when he writes, ‘…Let black people understand / That they are the lovers and the sons / Of warriors and sons’. Black Artalso evidences the violence, intolerance, and anti-semitism with which members of the movement were accused when it says, ‘…Strip him naked / to the world! Another bad poem cracking / knuckles in a jewlady’s mouth’. Baraka’s homophobic tendency is also reflected in this poem.

Another important criticism of the movement is its polemical nature. Many of its proponents rejected earlier works of black fiction. For them, past black writing was mostly characterized by failures or refusals to discover and express authentic black consciousness. In his essay, ‘The Myth of a Negro Literature’, Baraka opens that ‘the only recognizable accretion of tradition readily attributable to the black producer of a formal literature in this country, with a few notable exceptions, has been of an almost agonizing mediocrity’. An opinion like this, erroneous as it was, would have prevented many members of the movement from learning from their antecedents and inadvertently uprooted the movement from any grounding in historical consciousness. Furthermore, this disparaging brush with which Baraka painted works of earlier black writers replicated Western stereotypes of black art as undeserving of serious attention, mirroring the same anti-black sentiments that the Black Arts movement was supposed to stand against.

The movement’s decline began around the mid-1970s with its members’ growing variation in ideologies. President Nixon’s pushing of the policy of ‘black capitalism’ also weakened the movement by causing mainstream co-option. Entrepreneurs identified the most saleable artists of the movement, especially targeting women writers to capitalise on the upsurge of interest in the feminist movement.

While there is validity in the criticisms the Black Arts movement has garnered over the years, it is undeniable that it produced and influenced an array of brilliant black artistic expression in poetry, music and plays, many of which are still considered vital today. Concurring with Du Bois’ conception of art as propaganda decades earlier, the Black Arts movement tackled art with a revolutionary utilitarianism. To this end, artistic beauty was neither ignored nor disparaged, but rather redefined. To the Black Artists, beauty was determined by the attainment of its purpose of expressing reality to fulfil a need, whether spiritual, intellectual or material.

Like artists of the Black Arts movement, the possibility exists for black, and indeed, African artists to discuss the political but embed it in the appeal that music, art, dance and poetry hold for the public. They can also note which pitfalls to avoid by paying attention to their antecedents and striving for inclusion. The Black Arts movement is continually criticized for its apparent sexism. Contemporary artists would do well to incorporate the perspectives of women, people living with disabilities, and LGBTI individuals in their social critique.

The visibility of art makes it a powerful means of agency to reach audiences’ consciousness. Art need not singularly perform the function of the aesthetic or of utility. Rather, it can toe the line between both in its exploration and representation of the human condition. In Nigeria and beyond, today’s artists can learn from these examples that it is possible to make beauty with a sense of personal and political responsibility, if they choose to do so