Creating a cultural identity

7th February 2003 at 00:00
Multiculturalism requires far more than using 'exotic' traditions to embellish western values. Lola Jean Bean looks at the way Black artists in 1920s New York added a new dimension to American culture

New York was one of the most successful, vibrant and cosmopolitan cities in the world during the 1920s. Much of this success was due to Harlem, in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where the celebration of African identity inspired a style of urban art that found expression in poetry, prose, music, theatre, paintings and illustrations. Aaron Douglas was one of the most outstanding of these artists; his drawings appeared on the front cover of publications such as The Crisis, Opportunity and Survey Graphic. Shown here is the drawing "Rebirth" (1925), his first published response to the new Harlem self-consciousness.

Known today as the Harlem Renaissance, it was then called the New Negro movement. Its advocates included W E B Du Bois, Harvard-educated writer and leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Alain Locke, a Rhodes Scholar, Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and Gwendolyn Bennett and Jessie Fauset, writers and teachers. The movement started with literature and expanded to include paintings, drama, theatre and music.

Douglas was still developing as an illustrator when he created "Rebirth".

Executed in thick black ink on white paper, the figures are flat and clearly defined in his hard-edged manner; perspective is not used. The composition is complex and angular, adding to its sense of urgency.

Symbols, such as the Sun, plant life, eyes and idols' heads give the drawing energy and the white background gives depth to the composition.

Douglas developed a style of representing his figures in profile which he called "Egyptian form". This is achieved by stylising the body as if it were being observed from several viewpoints. The face, breasts and legs are in profile, but the visible eye looks straight ahead; the shoulders are drawn from the front and the hips are seen from a three-quarter view. The figures are reduced to elemental geometrical shapes: rectangles, circles and triangles. Most of the forms evoke African sculpture and landscape.

"Rebirth" also shows the influence of European Art Deco and Cubist styles.

Art Deco was popular in America between the Wars.

During the 1920s, African-American writers demanded African-derived images for their publications. "Rebirth" appeared in the 1925 publication of The New Negro. That year, Douglas wrote to Langston Hughes, the playwright, poet and author: "Your problem, Langston, my problem, no, our problem is to conceive, develop, establish an art era. Not white art painted blackI Let's do the impossible. Let's create something transcendentally material, mystically objective. Earthy. Spiritually earthy. Dynamic."

Winold Reiss was an important influence on Douglas. He was an avant-garde graphic artist from Bavaria who was aware of the influence of African and Oceanic art on Modernism and taught Douglas when he arrived in Harlem.

Douglas acknowledged the influence of Cubism, as well as sculptural traditions from Egypt and the Ivory Coast. In contrast to Douglas's flat angular forms, Picasso and other Cubists suggested three-dimensional form through faceted angular shapes with more depth. Picasso's images are harsh and ambiguous whereas Douglas's faces are clear and do not have the empty-eyed, blank, mask-like appearance of, for example, Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (1907). By the time of the Wall Street Crash in 1929, he was established as an artist.

Music had an enormous impact on the Harlem Renaissance - the era is known as the Jazz Age. Jazz developed in New York with the arrival of people fleeing oppression in the South. Musicians such as Duke Ellington and singer Bessie Smith developed a style of jazz that is still enjoyed today.

Jazz was important to Douglas, too, and he expressed this in his work.

Today, when globalisation is making significant changes to our world, children need to learn about the heritage of different societies. As Paul Dash, head of art and design at Goldsmiths' University, says: "Many teachers, in dealing with issues of exclusion through 'multicultural' programmes, merely train children to borrow design features from other traditions which are then embedded in a western conceptual framework. The choice of material and the way they are interpreted are determined by western perceptions of the cultures which generated them. The opinions, values and experiences of the people who produced the artefacts are often ignored or not understood. Multiculturalism by this means is a mere 'exotic' embellishment of traditional western practices which fail to equip children with the skills to tackle issues of bias and exclusion in their environments. Art and design education for the 21st century should address classroom practice as a matter or importance if we are properly to meet the needs and aspirations of all our children".

In the Harlem Renaissance, people found a variety of ways for self-expression and self-determination. Art was one of these. Aaron Douglas understood identities were not static and that in creating modern art he could choose from Cubism, Art Deco and African sculpture, for example, and infuse into these his own ideas. Children can learn from his example and develop their own vibrant styles.

Black Art and Culture in the 20th CenturyBy Richard J Powell. Thames and Hudson pound;7.95www.africana.comThoughts on a Relevant Art Curriculum for the 21st Century. By Paul Dash. National Society for Education in Art and Design (NSEAD)www.nsead.orgAppreciating Diversity through the arts of the Harlem Renaissance. Art pack by Lola Jean Bean and Peter Chinque.

Perspective Publications Tel: 020 8653 Lola Jean Bean is a lecturer and provides training courses on African and Asian art history Teaching tips

Key stage 2

Drawing can be used as a stimulus to look at spaces and see how to represent them in two dimensions. Take photographs of pupils in different poses. Discuss the photographs and the way space is used. Get pupils to choose a particular part of a photograph and draw it on paper, each reproducing a small area to contribute to a whole. Explain that artists of the Harlem Renaissance came from diverse backgrounds but worked together to produce art that would benefit the whole community.

Key stage 3

Pupils should consider how Douglas uses space. What do they notice about the arrangement of the figures and their relative sizes? They can create a composition using only black ink and white paper, crowding the space with images but without using perspective. Ask them to compare their work with Douglas's.

Key stage 4

What are the similarities and differences between "Rebirth" and "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon"? How does the composition show energy and depth? In what way does Douglas show he is using images from African sculpture? Apart from Cubism what other styles can be seen here? How did the artist come to use these styles?

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