The Spirited Image Making of Napoleon Jones-Henderson
By D. Amari Jackson
It would be near impossible to underestimate the role that color plays in our lives. From food to nature to art to social relations, color is ever with us, informing us daily of our meal options, our seasonal and circadian cycles, our creative inclinations, and even, for better or worse, our social constructs and categorizations. Colors can excite, depress, or inspire; colors can shock or soothe. They can trigger powerful emotions and simultaneously represent those emotions once activated, both figuratively and literally, be it the red of anger or heat, the blue of cold or melancholy, the green of life.
Consistently, as emotive, expressive, and artistic human beings, colors speak to our spirit.
“If you look back into traditional African forms, ancient and contemporary—that is, Africans in the West as well as Africans in the continent—the use of color and the manner in which it’s employed is always within the context of the spiritual realm,” acknowledges Napoleon Jones-Henderson, a multimedia artist based in Roxbury, Massachusetts.
A formative and current member of the legendary artist collective, AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), Jones-Henderson has employed woven tapestries, sculptures, mosaic tiles, silkscreen, enamel on copper, and works on paper to explore relevant themes of Pan-Africanism and racial justice for more than a half century. A retrospective, Napoleon Jones-Henderson: I Am As I Am—A Man, is currently running through July 24 at the Institute of Contemporary Art’s Fotene Demoulas Gallery in Boston.
“If we look, for example, at the Yoruba culture, the various deities or Orishas are associated with a particular color, and those particular colors have to do with that particular religious or sacred practice,” explains Jones-Henderson, noting these practices migrated to “the Caribbean, South America, and the North American continent where we were enslaved. We continued to practice those religious and sacred ceremonies, and colors were preeminently involved in that.”
Jones-Henderson provides examples from Western denominations of the Christian church where the ministers dress in black and there are “various colors associated with the choirs and with other ancillary activities, associations, or groupings within a particular church practice that is always employed in the sacred context.” To that extent, he reiterates, “the spiritual realm of life is always embellished or enhanced by the use of the color palette. And the choice of those colors is determined by the artistic sensibility of the community” as “all of those manners of dress are informed by a sense of aesthetic choice. And those aesthetic choices are the use of certain colors that, in many instances, if one looks deeply into them, in terms of contemporary Christian practice, you will find those associations with those particular African deities that have come to this Western hemisphere with us through the enslavement process, and it has continued on ‘til today.”
“So the sacred was always present in color.”
Whether sacred, artistic, racial trope, or cultural expression, color has been ever present in the life of Jones-Henderson. Born on Chicago’s southside, he was an artist from the start, coming of age in a mid-20th century Black community where his supportive family, local residents, and teachers encouraged his talents in drawing, painting, and the production of school posters. Black culture and art were in full effect as Jones-Henderson was surrounded by such prominent Chicago-based institutions as the Southside Community Arts Center and what became the DuSable Museum of African American History, along with such local instructors as Margaret Taylor-Burroughs and her husband, Charles. Upon completing high school, Jones-Henderson attended junior college before studying French Art History and Figure Drawing at the Sorbonne Student Continuum-Student and Artists Center in Paris, France, a country reputed to have a more encouraging racial climate for artists of color.
Returning to the states, Jones-Henderson enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago where he focused on textile weaving, a practice first introduced to him by a high school teacher. Key to the weaving process is the effective employment of color, both in composition and mixing. Unlike other less complex, fiber-based arts like knitting or quilting, different weave structures blend colors differently, making solid areas of color more unpredictable and difficult to produce.
Nonetheless, Jones-Henderson’s colors were as solid as his commitment to his culture. In 1968, the skilled weaver was part of a motivated group of Black artists that formed AfriCOBRA, which Jones-Henderson clarifies as “the longest continually existing artists collective or group working together in Western art history. We’ve been together 54 years and are still operating.”
The initial dialogue, says Jones-Henderson, “primarily looked at Black artists and what our roles were in the civil rights movement. But it was premised not so much on just civil rights as it was about the affirmation of the humanity of African people worldwide.” A variety of local groups and artist collectives “would meet at different times in each other’s home or studios. The discussion in the visual arts was instigated by Jeff Donaldson, who corralled all of us together to have some conversation around our role within the context of civil rights because marching was not what it was about for us,” explains Jones-Henderson, noting how the question became, “So how do we then support those efforts? And that germinating seed evolved into AfriCOBRA.”
AfriCOBRA brought more color into Jones-Henderson’s life—literally. Along with promoting “a Black aesthetic,” the organization became known for its artistic employment of “Kool-Aid colors.”
“Kool-Aid colors are simply a cultural manifestation in one sense,” offers Jones-Henderson, describing how his generation “grew up with Kool-Aid as a drink we would normally have with meals or recreational drinking that came in all the various colors of lime, orange, green, purple, and all those various flavors which had a particular color.”
He reports how conscious brothers in the 1960s often wore outfits with matching tops and bottoms similar to the jogging suits of today. “I don’t remember the exact manner in which we came up with the terminology, but the colors we were dressed in and moving about through the community were the same colors as the Kool-Aid we were drinking,” recalls Jones-Henderson who, at the time, produced large pictorial woven tapestries for the collective’s early exhibitions.
“So that just became the premise for our describing the color palette of AfriCOBRA’s work, because all of those beautiful, brilliant colors were apparent in the paintings and the fashions that the different members of AfriCOBRA were creating. They were very much a part of our visual aesthetic in the community which had to do with culinary, recreational, and celebratory aspects of life, so those colors were and still are consistent throughout the African world with a sense of color representation.”
“AfriCOBRA couldn’t have been half as powerful as it became without Napoleon,” asserts Nelson Stevens, a retired art professor and fellow member of AfriCOBRA who met Jones-Henderson at a meeting in the collective’s early days. Stevens characterizes his colleague as an “outstanding artist” who “always had a lot of great energy. Out of the first AfriCOBRA members, nobody has been to more AfriCOBRA meetings than the two of us.” Consistently, “one of the great things about Napoleon,” he stresses, is that he is an avid recorder of information “who has minutes of the meetings and all kinds of historic things. He is, in his own way, a major historian of the Black Arts Movement.”
Jones-Henderson has continued to represent AfriCOBRA as one of the longest continuously active members in the organization. For the past 50 years, his ongoing commitment to an African aesthetic has informed his artistic path, be it his additional studies or his career in academia. In 2005, Jones-Henderson received his M.F.A. degree in Interdisciplinary Arts from the Maryland Institute College of Art. That same year he was appointed associate professor of art at Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, a highlight in a lengthy teaching career that has included positions at Malcolm X College in Chicago, the Massachusetts College of Art, Emerson College in Boston, Roxbury Community College, and the Vermont College of Norwich University. Along the way, Jones-Henderson accepted numerous artist residencies at such institutions as Towson University, Syracuse University, and the McDonough School while exhibiting his art and receiving an array of awards for it and his ongoing work in the community.
A recent dialogue with Jones-Henderson on his current retrospective hosted by the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) brought him together with longtime colleague, art historian, curator, and artist, Dr. Leslie King-Hammond. The founding director of the Center of Race and Culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art, King-Hammond opened the conversation and set up Jones-Henderson’s museum exhibit by offering that it “is just an honor, a privilege, and very humbling to be in the presence of Napoleon Jones-Henderson… [I]t has been amazing to watch him as an artist, as a community innovator, as a creative in this country fighting, working, and committing to his craft, which is so brilliantly installed in this museum.”
Today, along with his ICA exhibit, Jones-Henderson’s artwork graces numerous private collections and public art commissions and is on display at such prominent institutions as the Hampton University Museum, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Museum of National Center of Afro-American Artists, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the DuSable Museum of African American History, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the Southside Community Art Center.
Such acclaim is a testament to Jones-Henderson’s tireless commitment to color representation on all sides of the artistic process, be it in content or creation. When asked if he believes that the Black artist should have an inherent commitment to her or his community, his answer is just as colorful.
“Listen, for any artist, be it music, visual, or literary, what you create comes from that community,” points out Jones-Henderson, stressing “therefore it’s inherent that you have a responsibility. Whether you overtly acknowledge that, that’s a choice that individuals make depending on how they want to flow through this world as a practitioner of any one of those disciplines. But when you look at the landscape of what’s created by the African-American visual artist, you can see that the culture is primary in their work.”
“With AfriCOBRA, we see and have defined ourselves not as artists, but as imagemakers,” promotes Jones-Henderson. “If one is creating images that reflect themselves, their community, and their culture, that in itself is respect for their community, and an obvious affirmation of that respect. So any artist who says they have no responsibility to their culture is just simply misguided,” he contends, noting that “I say ‘misguided,’ not in a negative sense, but that they just simply haven’t taken the time to really assess what they are doing and where the source of that inspiration comes from.”
“So it’s a given whether you acknowledge it or not,” adds Jones-Henderson. “It is something you do by virtue of creating the work that you create.”