Why Abstract Art Matters to Black Americans

By Yvonne Bynoe

Is it Black art if there no Black people in it?

It would seem that the answer is obviously YES, insofar that any art created by a Black person, including abstract works, is an expression of who they are, what they believe, and what they have experienced. Nevertheless, this question has been central to the challenge of Black abstract artists in attracting the attention of galleries and Black art lovers.  

The art that has become most associated with African-American art is figuration, where a discernible, realistic subject is rendered in the work. These are works that center Black figures and/or environments and symbols and situations typically identified with Black Americans. Art writers and scholars certainly erased Black abstract artists from the canon. However, one of the chief reasons for the marginalization of Black abstract artists is rooted in the history of Black Americans in the United States.  

While abstract art was gaining traction in Europe in the early 1900s, Blacks were living in the segregated United States where lynchings were rampant, domestic terriorists such as the Klu Klux Klan operated with impunity, and opportunities for education and upward mobility were extremely limited. Moreover, crude caricatures of Black Americans as lazy, sloven, immoral and intellectually inferior were regularly used in White-owned newspapers, magazines, and films to justify maintaining the racial status quo. 

Given the substantial struggles that Black Americans faced, African-American leaders championed art that supported social and political advancement. As early as 1911, Dr. W.E.B DuBois, a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P) promoted Black writers in its publication, The Crisis. The publication also used the works of Black visual artists to counter the stereotypical depictions of African-Americans. DuBois famously wrote in Criteria of Negro Art (1926):

All art is propaganda, and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.  

Howard University professor, Dr. Alain Locke, often called the Father of the Harlem Renaissance, disagreed with DuBois saying that “Propaganda perpetuates the position of group inferiority.” DuBois, however, had an influential platform and he held sway with White progressives of the day, which included art patrons, so his vision about the function of Black visual art became the standard. 

This is not to say that Black artists in the United States don’t have a long and rich history with abstract art. Norman Lewis (1909-1979), for instance, was an early participant in the Abstract Expressionist movement in the United States. Lewis was born in New York and began his career in the 1930s as a social realist. He employed a figurative style and painted subject matter such as bread lines, evictions, and police brutality to bring attention to injustices experienced by Black Americans.

However, after more than a decade, Lewis abandoned social realism, concluding that painting ​“an illustrative statement that merely mirrors some of the social conditions” was not going to facilitate change. Around 1946, Lewis began exploring abstraction, and, in April of 1950, he participated in the Artists Sessions held at Studio 35 in New York, which established him as the only African-American in the burgeoning Abstract Expressionist movement. 

In the mid-1950s, when the modern Civil Rights movement was forming, African-American artists, as prior generations, were encouraged to make representational work that depicted African-American uplift. With the ascent of the Black Power Movement in the mid-1960s and its associated Black Arts Movement, the mandate became stronger for Black American artists to create art that could be used in the battle for racial and political justice. 

Amiri Baraka was a founding figure of the Black Arts Movement and his poem “Black art” is often called the manifesto for the movement. Although DuBois may not have agreed with Baraka’s tart language or the strident tone of “Black Art,” the message of the poem aligns with what he said in Criteria of Negro, namely that the only legitimate function of art by Black artists is to be a tool for group progress. 

Baraka, in his essay “The Black Arts Movement,” describes the Black Arts Movement as wantingan art of struggle, an art that is related to the reality of our history, and the real life of the world, particularly of the Afro American people…” Subsequently, the art that was deemed most authentically Black or most politically aware was figuration.  

During this period, White galleries and museums were grudgingly opening their doors to African-American artists and they sought Black artists who were creating figurative works to represent and exhibit. Moreover, the emerging cultural institutions  African Americans founded or that supported African-American artists didn’t believe that abstract art was relevant to Black Americans. As a consequence, Black abstract artists—including the aforementioned Norman Lewis, Alma Thomas, Richard Mayhew, Howardina Pindell and a host of others—were largely ignored by both the art world and by Black American audiences.

Since 1990, art patron Pamela Joyner has been working diligently to raise the visibility of Black abstract artists beyond merely acquiring work. She has been a fierce advocate for museum exhibitions and the scholarly interrogation of mid-century Black abstract artists. She stated, “We are endeavoring to put people on walls in a way that not only the art world, but the community, might not naturally think of. It’s not immediately obvious that since the 1940s African-Americans have been making transformational abstraction.” Among the artists she cites are Ed Clark, who is acknowledged as the first artist in the modern era to work on shaped canvases; Jack Whitten, who was doing squeegee paintings in the 1970s (at least a decade before Gerhard Richter); as well as Sam Gilliam, who created groundbreaking large scaled drape paintings. 

Going back to Dr. Alain Locke’s admonition, Black Americans should ask if a liberated people would intentionally constrain their expression in the visual arts? Furthermore, what are Black Americans losing culturally by not engaging with and acquiring abstract works by Blacks?

Abstract work is challenging for many people because it requires that you interpret the work for yourself. It means looking at the shapes, lines, colors and paint application to determine what feelings or thoughts, if any, the work elicits for you. Similar to music, two people can hear the same exact song yet have vastly different responses to it because they are each filtering the lyrics and rhythm through their separate frames of reference. In all candor, the same could be said for many figurative works. Abstract work isn’t more sophisticated than figurative works; it’s simply a different artistic vehicle that Black artists can and should use. 

Since Black Americans are not a monolith, it stands to reason that our visual art isn’t one either. 

The renowned art historian, curator and artist, David C. Driskell has been quoted as saying that abstract art doesn’t portray what we see in the real world but instead is what “one creates from the imagined world.” He adds that pure abstraction shows ”the essential quality, the bare bones, the structure underneath what we see every day.” Driskell’s body of work as an artist includes abstract as well as figurative works.

The newly launched Black Art in America Gallery in East Point, Georgia has an array of abstract works currently on exhibit. Below is a small sampling that can serve as an entry point into your journey into abstraction.

If you can’t visit the gallery, you can access additional information, including pricing and payment plans, on these works and others by calling (678) 847-8735 or visiting: https://shopbaiaonline.com/collections/black-art-in-america-opening-exhibithttps://shopbaiaonline.com/collections/black-art-in-america-opening-exhibit

David C. Driskell (1931- 2020)
Purple Door For Vince
5.5 x 7.25 inches image size, 16 x 20 inches matted size, pastel, ink and collage on paper — framed

18 x 24 x 2 ½  inches, mixed media — framed

Kevin E. Cole: “Truth is my work is a colorful reminder of promises unkept, imperialism still institutionalized, and stealth deceit that has stolen the dreams and birthrights of twenty generations of a once proud people. It stands in contrast to the canon just as Normal Lewis’ work stood in contrast to those who framed early abstract expressionism…The narrative is embedded like html code. It is not what one sees, but it can be decoded…”

UNTITLED Louis Delasarte
36 x 30 inches acrylic on paper — framed

Delsarte’s work is in several institutional collections including the Hammonds House Museum and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA , the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and the National Gallery of Art in Bermuda.

He received his B.F.A from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York and an M.FA. from the University of Arizona. Delsarte has taught painting and drawing at numerous institutions for many years. Currently he teaches arts and humanities at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.

Downs: “By speaking clearly in a non object idiom, the goal is to make art that reflects modern day life. My process consists of layering spontaneous random marks that are sometimes completely obscured. By working and reworking surfaces, I expose the varying depth of color which creates spaces that expand and contract, communicating the work’s shifting moods.” 

The current series “Conversations In The Abstract”, arose from a stroke Downs experienced in 2015. Downs’ perception of life as an artist changed. The stroke brought on strange and unusual conversations in his mind, which he can only describe as abstract.

Downs has been painting professionally for over 40 years and has exhibited nationally and internationally. His work has been included in group shows with noted artists such as Andre Miripolsky, Mark Mothersbaugh and Karl Benjamin. Downs’ works are included in private collections throughout the world.

Najjar Abdul-Musawwir
UNTITLED (Banjo Series #4)
16.5 x 59 inches, various wood assemblage sculpture

Najjar Abdul-Musawwir (b.1958) is Chicago, Illinois based artist who has exhibited throughout the United States, Africa, Asia and Europe. He currently works as an Associate Professor of studio arts and art history in the School of Art and Design and Africana Studies at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

In advocating that more Black American art lovers and collectors explore abstraction, we will briefly return to Norman Lewis to show that abstract artists weren’t necessarily apolitical. Though his painting style changed, Lewis remained committed to social injustice throughout his career. In the aftermath of the March on Washington in 1963, Lewis formed the SPIRAL collective with Romare Bearden, Charles Alston, and Hale Woodruff to make a contribution to the Civil Rights Movement. In works such as “America The Beautiful” and “Bonfire” that depict gatherings of the Klu Klux Klan, Lewis uses abstraction to directly engage with the socio-political issues of the 1960s. 

Note: Criteria of Negro Art was published in The Crisis in October 1926. DuBois initially spoke these words at a celebration for the recipient of the Twelfth Spingarn Medal, Carter Godwin Woodson. The celebration was part of the NAACP’s annual conference and was held in June 1926.

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YvonneYVONNE BYNOE is the founder of the curated online platform @shelovesblackart which highlights visual art from the African diaspora to encourage more people of African descent to collect art. She is a cultural critic, author of several popular books on popular culture.


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