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Journey through the Black Atlantic Opens at Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea
Adrian Piper (born 1948), I Embody Everything You Most Hate and Fear, 1975. Oil crayon on black and white phtograph, 20,3 x 25,4 cm. Collection Thomas Erben, New York.

By: Tanya Barson

SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA.- Paul Gilroy used the term ‘The Black Atlantic’ to describe the fusion of black cultures with other cultures from around the Atlantic. His book, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, had an enormous impact on how black culture has been perceived and discussed within the field of cultural studies, stimulating ongoing critical debates. Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic reflects this idea of the Atlantic Ocean as a ‘continent in negative’, a network of cultures connecting Africa, North and South America, the Caribbean and Europe, and traces the real and imaginary routes taken by artists across the Atlantic from 1909 to today.

This section examines early twentieth-century movements in art and the exchanges that occurred between them, through actual transatlantic journeys as well as aesthetic connections and contrasts. It highlights the ways in which black culture was negotiated in and through modernism by both black and white artists at this time—focusing on artists active in Paris, New York and South America from 1909 to the late 1930s. It will show how African-American, Caribbean and Latin American artists claimed the language of Modern art as a powerful tool to explore, formulate and assert their own identity. Tracing the routes across the Atlantic of various artists, Black Atlantic Avant-Gardes will examine how this has impacted their work and practice.

Importantly, Black Atlantic Avant-Gardes examines the extent to which black artists were able to contribute to modern art movements, addressing the complexity of their involvement and the challenge that this presents to the conventional understanding of Modern art.

A key figure in this section is Aaron Douglas, an African-American artist associated with the Harlem Renaissance.

Douglas was close to the writer W.E.B Du Bois who wrote about the idea of the ‘double consciousness’, or being between two cultures. This idea is central to Paul Gilroy’s notion of the black Atlantic, reflected through split identity and hybrid cultures. In his works, Douglas, who never lived in Africa, depicted native African life and landscapes from an imagined past, while also addressing modern forms and conditions of modern life.

Movements explored within the section:

European primitivism
A term used to describe the appropriation by early modern European artists within their work of what was then called ‘primitive’ art. This included tribal art from Africa, the South Pacific and Indonesia, as well as prehistoric and ancient European art, European folk art and pre-Columbian art. Primitivism can also be interpreted as the search for a simpler lifestyle away from Western urban sophistication.
The discovery of African tribal art by Picasso was a major factor in leading him to cubism.

A brief period in 1920s Paris when avant-garde artists celebrated black culture through dance, music, fashion and art, primarily as a means to react against what they deemed to be bourgeois sensibilities and rejuvenate European culture in the aftermath of World War I. Prominent personalities associated with Negrophilia include Josephine Baker and Nancy Cunard.

The Harlem Renaissance
A cultural, literary, artistic and intellectual movement originating in New York during the 1920s, the Harlem Renaissance was an early manifestation of black consciousness in the United States through which black writers and artists expressed and asserted their sense of modernity. It was a celebration and exploration of African-American history, identity and expression and exerted influence until the 1930s, though many of its ideas resonated long afterwards. The movement questioned the cultural authority of the Western canon and challenged white paternalism and societal racism. Writers such as the poet Langston Hughes became icons of this movement.

Brazilian Antropofagia
A short-lived Brazilian artistic and cultural movement heralded by the poet Oswald de Andrade in 1928, Antropofagia was a response to the cultural legacies imported by European colonialism and aimed to assert the distinctively hybrid aspects of Brazilian art and literature. ‘Antropofagia’ translates literally as ‘people-eater’ (thus cannibal), and refers to the idea of Brazilians devouring or appropriating foreign cultural influences rather than being colonised by them.


The second section of the exhibition presents an important work by Maya Deren, a Ukrainian-born American choreographer, avant-garde filmmaker and film theorist of the 1940s and 1950s. Between 1947 and 1951, Deren spent significant periods of time in Haiti filming and participating in Voodoo festivals, rituals and rites. The result is this (posthumously edited) black and white film Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1947-1951) that unites surrealism and ethnography. Deren also published a book of the same title in 1953.

The finished film which includes narration from Deren’s book still stands today as an authoritative document of Haitian Voodoo—a religion based upon merging the beliefs and practices of West African people, brought as slaves to Haiti, with Roman Catholicism. Deren’s film is highly personal and reflects Haiti as a source of inspiration for its hybrid culture, for its key position in the dispersal of people of African descent and for Haiti’s importance as the site of the first slave rebellion, an uprising that contributed to the abolition of slavery.

The term ‘black Orpheus’ links three continents through an essay by Jean-Paul Sartre (1948), a journal from Nigeria (1957) and a well-known Brazilian film (1959). This room explores Négritude, Natural Synthesis and creolisation.

Négritude was a cultural, artistic and political movement founded during the 1930s by a group that included Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, Léon Damas, and the future Senegalese President Léopold Sédar Senghor. Négritude aimed to reclaim the value of blackness, African culture and identity. It was influenced by surrealism in Paris and partly inspired by the Harlem Renaissance in New York. The movement celebrated a rediscovered African identity, culture and expression, challenging the inherent racism of colonialism. It was underpinned by the belief that the shared heritage of members of the African diaspora was the best tool to combat colonial and cultural domination.

Natural Synthesis was a Nigerian movement that proposed a fusion of European modernism with local African aesthetic influences, creating a confluence of different cultural references. Devised by the artist and theorist Uche Okeke following the independence of Nigeria in 1960, Natural Synthesis was intended as an artistic manifesto for a nation reborn. For Okeke any revival of traditional art was regressive. Acknowledging a break from this past, he envisioned a Nigerian art which celebrated the diversity of its cultural traditions whilst simultaneously confronting the immediate philosophical and artistic landscape in which it was based.

Various related tendencies developed as a reaction to Négritude, identified with terms including ‘Creolité’, ‘Antillanité’ and ‘creolisation’. These reflect a fluid blending of cultures and the acknowledgment by artists and writers within the Caribbean that they were influenced by many cultures. Closely identified with hybridity, ‘creolisation’ describes the appropriation and reinterpretation of non-native cultural elements into a single Creole, or multi-ethnic society.

Cuban artist Wifredo Lam, who spent time in Madrid and Paris becoming part of avant-garde circles there and a close friend and follower of Picasso, returned to the Caribbean at the beginning of the World War II. His work reflects a development of cubism and surrealism and their use of African art, combining it with influences from the Caribbean, as can be seen in Le Bruit (1943), and Lumière dans la forêt, La Grande Jungle (1942).

Dissident Identities looks at how, from the early 1960s onwards, artistic practice became politically engaged in a more overt way, as a response to radical political activity of the period. Through their work artists of black African descent claimed their rights, freedoms, equality and democracy both aesthetically and through direct action.

This section brings together artists working in different media and contexts that adopt radical or marginal positions. It addresses different forms of social as well as racial exclusion and oppositional tactics. It also examines the practices of sampling, recycling and accumulation—exemplifying what Paul Gilroy calls the “polyphonic qualities of black cultural expression”. The section encompasses aspects of political activism and radicalism, street-based interventions, improvisations, carnival and other strategies of marginal resistance located outside institutional structures. It will also include the work of various photographers who documented political movements, such as the Civil Rights and the Black Power movements.

David Hammons is a New-York based artist whose street-based work incorporated political statements into his work to address social exclusion. In The Door (Admissions Office) (1969), the work bears a body print on the door to an admissions office, making manifest the idea of threshold and exclusion. At a similar time Romare Bearden created a vast number of collage works using clippings from magazine that reflect a diversity and hybridity inspired by Modernist influences and the language of African sculpture. In the 1970s and 1980s artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat claimed the streets with graffiti art in New York City.

Reconstructing the Middle Passage takes Paul Gilroy’s concept of the ship as a central motif of the black Atlantic as its starting point. Therefore this section examines how various contemporary artists have approached the subject of slavery, migration and the retrieval of history and memory in imaginative ways via imagery of the slave ship and/or the middle passage. The works on display date from the late 1980s to the present day and include the work of artists from the Caribbean, the United States and Europe.

The ‘Middle Passage’ refers to the central portion of the triangular trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas, when African slaves were forcibly transported to New World plantations across the Atlantic. The triangle operated thus; commercial and manufactured goods from Europe were imported into the African market where they were bartered or sold for slaves. The slaves were then transported across the Atlantic and sold onto plantations in the New World. The raw materials produced by these plantations (sugar and tobacco amongst others) were in turn exported to Europe. The Middle Passage was therefore the scene of appalling conditions of confinement, sickness, death, torture and terror and involved barbaric acts such as throwing sick or unruly slaves overboard. It was also the means by which African slaves became detatched from their families, culture, reli-gions and history resulting in conflicted states of belonging and identity.

From the slave ship to World War II warships crewed by black sailors, from 1950s immigrant vessels such as the Empire Windrush to the latter day migrations from North Africa, Cuba and across the Caribbean, the ship has become a potent symbol of enforced migration, global inequality and violence in contemporary art. Ellen Gallagher (born 1965) explores the myth of a ‘Black Atlantis’ in her work through the fictional underwater world of Drexciya— populated by a marine species descended from the captive African slaves thrown overboard for being sick and disruptive cargo during the gruelling route from Africa to America.

Exhibiting Bodies focuses on contemporary responses to one of the most damaging aspects of colonialism and slavery, namely the explicit objectification of the black body. This objectification was most visible through instances of enforced transportation and the exhibition of black peoples for amusement or fascination.

This section explores the way in which scientific rationalism in Europe was used to reinforce the racist attitudes underpinning slavery. Paul Gilroy recognises the complicity of modernity in the slave trade, calling it the “insidious side of modernity”. Via tactics such as racial classification and the pseudo-science of phrenology (the study of the human skull to determine character and intelligence), Gilroy identifies how science contributed to notions of racial inferiority and the black body as mere object—one ultimately that could be bought and sold without conscience.

The works in this section (from the late 1990s to the present day) focus on how contemporary female artists from South Africa, the Caribbean, the United States and United Kingdom—have reclaimed the language of nineteenth century science and used it to explore their own identity and address racial stereotypes. Carrie Mae Weems’ You Became a Scientific Profile / A Negroid Type / An Anthropological Debate / & A Photographic Subject (1995-1996) represents this by showing four anonymous figures objectified through a photographic profile.

Tracey Rose’s photographic self-portrait Venus Baartman 2001 shows the artist posing as Sarah Bartmann, or Saartjie Baartman in Afrikaans, a Khoi-San (or Hottentot) woman from Capetown, South Africa. She was brought to England in 1810 and displayed as a side-show attraction in London and Paris to demonstrate the alleged anatomical distortions of the black female, particularly the size and shape of her buttocks. Rose’s work pays tribute to Bartmann whom she transforms into a symbol of black female struggle.

Other key works include Candice Breitz’s manipulation of kitsch ethnographic postcards from her Ghost Series, 1994- 1996, Coco Fusco’s performance as an Indian in a cage (The Couple in the Cage: Guatianaui Odyssey, 1993), and Wangechi Mutu’s contemporary collages based on ethnographic imagery.

Featuring work by artists from the United States, United Kingdom, South America and the Caribbean and spanning the late 1990s to the present day, this section examines methods including appropriation, the use of vernacular and popular culture, the practices of sampling, recycling and repetition, and the use of racist images and/or black humour by artists to address black subjectivity.

Glenn Ligon’s use of African-American comic Richard Pryor’s humour in his painting Gold Nobody Knew Me #1 (2007)—“I went to Africa. I went to the Mother Land to find my roots! right? Seven million black people! Not one of those motherf*ckers knew me…”—points to the relative accessibility or inaccessibility of Africa and a black heritage rooted in that continent.

The section also addresses a new generation of art and artists identified as ‘post-black’, a term coined by curator Thelma Golden and artist Glenn Ligon that, according to Golden, addresses those artists “who were adamant about not being labelled as ‘black’ artists, though their work was steeped, in fact deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness.” As a result this final room ends on something of a question mark, indicating current debates while opening them out beyond the United States.

US artist Adam Pendleton’s System of Display series (2008- 2009) is a commentary on modernism and modernity. These works are comprised of silk-screened mirrors each printed with photographic images drawn from disparate histories of modernity and display—including a Dada performance, as well as both ‘ethnographic’ works and Picassos at the first Documenta in 1955—as a result it reflects on and recycles history in a very direct way. In contrast, Haitian artist Adler Guerrier’s installation Untitled (BLCK-We Wear the Mask), 2008 presents the work of an imaginary black collective as a different way of appropriating and dealing with history.

The section ends on a black-and-white film by Kara Walker, 8 Possible Beginnings or The Creation of African-America, A Moving Picture by Kara E. Walker (2005). Walker’s work in silhouette can be related back to the beginning of the exhibition and the work of Aaron Douglas. Her silhouetted forms deal with much more difficult territory however; the unmistakable imagery of enslavement is a far cry from Douglas’ utopias and iconic black figures.

Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea | "The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness" | Paul Gilroy |

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