Through the Fires
by Tash Moore
Richmond Barthé was already an unusual man whose work was born out of unusual situations. A black male born at the dawn of the twentieth century in the Deep South into a Roman Catholic family. A boy who didn’t finish grade school who went on to study at the Art Institute of Chicago with the initial support of his home parish. A gay man in a deeply homophobic period within American society, openly socializing and being influenced by fellow creators during the Harlem Renaissance and yet being comfortable with his orientation, even when it began to isolate him. He was a man who sought not to racialize or radicalize his work, yet some of his most outstanding sculptures were directly influenced by racial violence as well as an appreciation for the male form. And one of those pieces, Africa Awakening, took on a new life of its own in an explosive period of black history.
“Born in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi in 1901, Richmond Barthé moved to New Orleans at an early age. Little is known about his early youth, except that he grew up in a devoutly Roman Catholic household, he enjoyed drawing and painting, and his formal schooling did not go beyond grade school. From the age of sixteen until his early twenties, Barthé supported himself with a number of service and unskilled jobs, including house servant, porter, and cannery worker. His artistic talent was noticed by his parish priest when Barthé contributed two of his paintings to a fundraising event for his church. The priest was so impressed with his art that he encouraged Barthé to apply to the Art Institute of Chicago and raised enough money to pay for his travel and tuition. From 1924 to 1928, Barthé studied painting at the Art Institute, while continuing to engage in unskilled and service employment to support himself…” (https://africanah.org/richmond-barthe/)
Barthe who remained an observant Catholic throughout his life was also at the center of early efforts to desegregate New Orleans’ art schools. Though Barthe left school at an early age to work, he was always afforded an opportunity to continue practicing drawing, and after moving to Chicago, to sculpt. While conservatively gay, Barthe seemed to compartmentalize his life enough to travel abroad with church fathers and study overseas. While not every priest has honored their vows, there seems to be no evidence that Barthe was impacted by celibacy or involved in impropriety surrounding his faith. And practicing allowed him opportunities he may not have seen otherwise.
Barthe eventually secured a trust from a wealthy female patron and was able to create unfettered by financial restraint. In 1959, he cast a figure in what is historically a defeated pose. Instead, the plaster cast shows an unnamed black man looking up defiantly, rising again from whatever blows life had landed, already confident of restoration. The piece was later bronzed and cast without Barthe’s approval and he destroyed it to prevent further reproductions in the latter half of the 1970s.
“…The creation of the clay or plaster model in 1959, places it not only at the artist’s personal emerging from a long depression, but also exactly at the beginning of the liberation of African countries from European colonization and the dawn of the Civil Rights movement in the USA. Borrowing the figure and its style from the classical and academic tradition, and not from African art, has symbolic value. The unique bronze (Barthé destroyed the plaster model to prevent other copies from being cast) from the collection of the University of Southern Mississippi is therefore the foremost icon of the rebirth of the black populations of America, Africa and Europe…” (https://aquila.usm.edu/cookartgallery_perm/12/)
The early 1960s were such a hopeful period of American and African-American history. Black vanguard figures weren’t yet disillusioned by the bloodshed, seemingly endless war, and violent disquiet of life from 1963 onward. Black artists with means were beginning to travel the world at an increasing rate thanks to jet airplanes and the allure of post-colonial Africa. This shifted somewhat later in the decade as black artists and thinkers began to not return. For artists who stayed, the United States was exploding in so many ways it may have been difficult to keep up. Gone were the silent banners informing Harlem that black men had been lynched the day before, waving over the shoulders of the Harlem Hellfighters. Now the Black Panthers and other firebrands were loudly agitating and rejecting military service. Where Harlem had once been a picturesque haven away from overt segregation (except at the Cotton Club), now neighborhoods throughout the country were engulfed repeatedly in flames.
While the Harlem Renaissance may have been a more aesthetically close-knit “For Us By Us” moment in black art history, the almost chauvinistic quality of the black power era actually disturbed older artists such as Langston Hughes who’d matured in a much more private era. In the 1920s, if one had the fortitude and was privileged enough to get up to Harlem, one may have been more preoccupied with simply enjoying blackness for its own sake outside of the gaze of whiter America. By the 1960s, many black males were aware of just how economically disenfranchised they were and were angry.
By the 1970s, we were still active, yet tired. We had more economic power but we weren’t ignorant of the costs in black lives. Sometimes, we turned to disco. In this suburban, leisure-suited era, Barthe’s cast was rediscovered and fired into a bronze piece. Gone was the optimism, but here to stay was the outlook: America may not like us very much, but we’ll get up as many times as it takes. To a man who by then had emigrated to nearby islands for work, the America he’d grown up in may have been unrecognizable. So he destroyed his original cast and let the bronze work go. Eventually, he settled back in the states and died during the late 1980s. By that point, gayness wasn’t a detail, it’d become a lifestyle and a flashpoint in its own right. For a man who never totally fit in anywhere, it may have been time to simply leave the scenes he no longer recognized.
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Tash Moore is bicoastal Detroit booster, social entrepreneur and activist deeply passionate about promoting diversity & inclusion in all spheres. She currently spends her time between Detroit & DTLA.
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