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Contributor: Juwon Ogungbe
Visual Arts of the African Diaspora

It is no secret that leading European artists of the century such as Matisse and Picasso were influenced by African artists. However, the contributions of the African descendants in the Americas and the Caribbean are not as widely acknowledged.
Art is symbolism and symbols are useful for historians, archaeologists and others interested in the past. Much of the art that the western world regards as classical exists for such a purpose, whereas, to my mind, African artworks - as typified by masks ? have a continuing relevance to religious rituals.
How much does the work of African artists in the Diaspora stay true to the spirit of African art? Not very much, I would say, beyond the physical representation of faces and skins with Negroid features. But that is to be expected. The African-Americans, Latin Americans and Afro-Caribbeans have a different story to tell from that of the modern or ancestral African.
The artists of the Harlem Renaissance were probably the first generation of so-called ?self-conscious? artists in the western tradition among peoples of African descent. When you consider that the leading musicians of this movement were Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway, amongst others, it becomes clear that this was a highly innovative pioneering era.
The photographs of James VanDerZee ? described as Harlem?s leading photographer during the renaissance - captured historic moments such as the sight of Marcus Garvey at the U.N.I.A. rally in 1924 and an enclave of Black Jews standing outside their place of worship. Carl Van Vetchten ? socialite white photographer captured definitive shots of the writer Zora Neale Hurston, as well as the ?empress of the blues?, Bessie Smith.
The painting was mixed in quality - some of it in streaks of originality such as that of Jacob Lawrence in his Toussaint L?Overture series, while others such as Albert Alexander smith could be fairly described as influenced by Rembrandt and the Dutch masters.
Miguel Corarrubias and Winnold Reiss used drawings to depict the sepia-toned glamour of Harlem nightlife in the 1920s complete with street scenes, nightclubs, flash cars, Charleston dancers, flappers, high yeller chorines and all the hallmarks of the era. Reiss?s Work was like a precursor of the pop artwork of the likes of Roy Litchtenstein. The sculpture had a larger female representation with the Malvina Hoffman and Edna Manley which were mainly influenced by Greek and African works.
By far the most interesting part of the exhibition was the films displayed ? Josephine Baker performing in Berlin, a film by Jean Renoir with a minstrel in Black face (entitled ?Sur Un Air De Charleston?) and a film by Oscar Micheaux ? America?s first independent Black film maker.
Besides the films, there was little to take the breath away, but this exhibition is very useful as a documentation of this important era in the cultural life of African Americans.
Keith Piper?s exhibition was very modern and heavy on interactive technology. Mainly a retrospective exhibition of the works of this British artist of Afro-Caribbean origin, his preoccupations include Black history (as in colonialism and slavery), surveillance via new technology, power and resistance. He also focused on the cultural stereotypes of the ?Naturally Gifted? Black athlete. There were three installations ? two of which allowed the viewer to choose what he or she would like to see via an interactive computer. The Third ? entitled ?Another Arena? is shown on two very large screens with as middle class English woman?s voice intoning platitudes about the ?innate genetic athletic supremacy of Black people?.
The entire exhibition and more are available on a CD-ROM that accompanies the catalogue for the work, at just ?18, from the Institute of International Visual Arts (ph 0171 636 1930). Piper?s work ? some of the most eloquent from a British Black artist, is now available in a contained format for use in schools, libraries and homes.
Rhapsodies in Black is on at the Hayward Gallery and Relocating the remains is exhibited at the royal college of Art Gulbenkian Gallery until the end of August.
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