Afro-Futurism Comes to Harlem

Image By: Lisa Dubos

Once More Art Mirrors the Angst and Hopes of a People

From its inception modern artists have responded to developments in society and technology. European art, from the sculptures of ancient Greeks and Romans to the paintings of the Renaissance sought to produce realistic images of mythological figures or actual life.

Often these works centered on the concerns of their wealthy and powerful patrons, which is why we have so many portraits of aristocrats. Hence the role of the artist was primarily as documentarian. But with the invention of photography, the artist was no longer needed in that role, because the camera could it faster, cheaper, and with complete accuracy.

Hence the artist had to seek ways of expressing their ideas that transcended realism. African Sculptures, which were increasingly on display in European museums – especially the Louvre in Paris, where a group of gifted artists had congregated – offered a new direction. Inspired by religious rituals, this was an art that sought to capture the spirit of things rather than realistic portrayals.

The European artist’s encounter with this art inspired the Cubism of Picasso, the Surrealism of Salvador Dali, and the impressionist movement. The descent of European civilization – which was viewed as the highest achievement of humankind – into barbarism during World War I inspired both the Jazz Age in Paris and Berlin, and the emergence of the Dadaist movement spawned in the Café Voltaire in Zurich Switzerland.

All these artistic developments reflected the angst created among European artists and intellectuals due to the Great War. Which resulted in their rejection of hierarchy and the systems of order they imposed, which they believed were causes of the war. The product of this angst was an art of chance and improvisation.

When I read the comments of Diana Sinclair, the 17year old curator of the pathbreaking cryptoart exhibition, “Digital Diaspora: Liberating Black Creativity,” I felt that I was hearing the desperate cry of black youth in the dawning decades of the 21 Century.  In an interview given to the London Guardian, 6/16/21, she recalls crying when she heard Joe Biden had defeated Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election:

“The past four years felt so horrible. I think it all crashed down on me at that moment…It scared me to think that [the hatred] could continue on for four more years … You saw it online in the comments, even in my own town… I was on Facebook, and I saw the horrible posts about Black women and Black people and just absolute bigotry from people that were basically my neighbors. It was horrifying … I was going through all of these scenarios and thinking about what my future would look like in this country and that was very frightening for me as a young Black queer person”.

Referring to herself as they/she – a designation that reflects her search for identity and belonging that is itself a manifestation of the angst many in the present generation of Black youths are experiencing – Ms. Sinclair observed:” It was a scary time being a Black person in America.” And after what the guardian interviewer describes as sardonic laughter she added, “It’s always a scary time, but especially then!” It was from this deep angst that the exhibition she curated was born. “The theme of the show is Afrofuturism, to express our hopes for the future. The philosophy of Afrofuturism is the idea that we’ll [Black people] be here and thriving in the future…”

As an Afro-American male who came of age in the middle of the 20th century, I am acutely aware of the deep strain of pessimism among the generation born at the turn of the 21st century or after. Popularly known as Generation Z, or Gen Z, they were typically born between 1997 and 2012, which would make their senior members 24 years old.

At first glance Americans of my generation, especially Black people, wonder at the source of their pessimism. After all, my generation, which came of age in the 1960’s, had to face a society in which white supremacy was legal and had been so since the Plessy v Ferguson Decision of 1896.

Yet one need only observe the attitudes of the students who launched the sit-in movement, or World Heavy-Weight Champion Muhammad Ali – who was the perfect embodiment of the spirit of our generation, to see that we had what sociologists call “The Eternal Optimism of the Hustler.”

Hence, we wonder at the source of Gen Z’s angst. White supremacy as a legal fact expressed in a racial caste system that included segregation in many parts of American life is gone. Black quarterbacks in the NFL are ubiquitous, Black Astronauts male and female are commonplace, and all of them have lived through two terms of a black Presidency!

These gains that the present generation takes for granted, as they should, were but distant hopes when I was a college freshman in1959, and virtually none of our parent’s generation believed these goals were attainable in our lifetimes…if ever.  Yet we were not facing the horrors of climate change. A terrifying phenomenon that world leaders seem unable to cope with because of conflicts in the national interests of nation states.

Greta Turnbuerg, the bold and brilliant Swedish teenager, who has emerged as the voice of Gen Z, whom a recent PEW survey tells us speaks for “a youth led movement that “is among the most visible in global conversations advocating climate action. “   Yet instantaneous annihilation of all life on planet Earth by nuclear holocaust remains an ever-present possibility.

Viewed from a different perspective, Afro-Futurism might well represent a hopeful reaction to the pessimism of GEN Z. Perhaps it is performing the same psychological function for their generation that Blues musicians provided for past generations of Black Americans, and people around the world who developed a Blues sensibility.  The 20th century Afro-American Blues philosopher and Renaissance Man, Albert Murray, a paragon of the Blues sensibility, distinguishes “the Blues as such” from the “Blues as music,” in his magisterial text “Stomping the Blues.”

Professor Murray argues that the widespread conception of Blues music as sad is mistaken. The Blues as music, with its “heroic optimism,” is the joyous antidote to the depressive emotional state of the Blues as such. That’s why the musicians speak of “stomping the blues,” from which he took the title of his book.  Murray sums up the blues attitude thusly: “Life may be a low-down dirty shame, but we got to keep on swingin anyway!”

Perhaps, this is the deeper meaning of Afro-Futurism, the optimistic vision that functions as antidote to the angst. Looking at the works on display at the Underground Gallery + Studio last Saturday one feels uplifted. The artists on display spanned several generations. The “Baby Boomers” of my generation were represented by the pioneering Afro-Modernist painter Ademola Olugbefola, a founder of the highly influential Weusi Academy.

These “Afrocentric Visual Alchemist -” as Ademola calls them, conjured a new art that defined the visual aesthetics of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960’s that continues to influence artists around the world. See my essay:  “The Afro-Modernism of Ademola Olugbefola.”  Those born a generation behind are repped by the brilliant art photographer Lisa Dubois, and GEN Y by the fabulous photographer Diaja, whose works resemble oil paintings to the untutored eye.

The works of art on display were visionary in their design and innovative in technique. Lisa Dubois has invented new ways of combining photography and painting to produce stunningly original works. The cover portrait for this essay is a poignant case in point. Diaja, the progeny of a dancer and musician who claims she was mugged by the muse and shanghaied into the arts, creates dramatic photography – employing body paint and photographs of traditional African masks, that are then superimposed on the models –  conjuring a futuristic celebration of blackness which she says “combines the past and present reimagining a new reality,” that appears to be completely original. Sui Generis.

Diaja and Her Unique Art

Diaja’s Masked Man

Ademola Olugbefola’s Afro-Modernism

A Synthesis of Traditional African Sculpture and Western Modernism, a complex wood cut print that manages to show the connection between traditional African sculpture and modern European painting.

The works on display at this Exhibition employ a wide range of materials to produce eclectic paintings, photographs and sculptures in which the artists give free range to their imaginations without regard to conventional wisdom. However, as with all movements that embrace the role of avant-garde, one must be ever aware of the distinction between “innovation” and what I have labeled: “A mindless search for novelty.” The distinction is a fairly simple one, despite the complexity of the problem it references.  Innovation is the elaboration and enrichment of a tradition, while the latter is an attempt to be merely different, even if it leads to decadence.

Obviously, an extended explication of the issues raised by this distinction is beyond the scope of this essay, but I have discussed it at some length in a treatise titled “Blues and the Abstract Truth: Reflections on the Art of Charles ‘Yardbird’ Parker,” which I presented at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, in Hartford Connecticut. It will be published in a forthcoming collection of essays. Suffice it to say that these works strike this writer as innovations, especially when viewed from the perspective of the respectful observer mindful of the artists’ intentions, rather than the omniscient arbiter who judges works of art based on what they believe the artist objectives should be.

This show was hosted by Reginal Rousseau and curated by Lisa Dubois at the Underground + Studio Gallery, which is both an exhibit space and a work  Studio for Reginal. When I discovered that he was a licensed architect, I asked why he would risk an investment of time and money in the fine art game. To wit he replied that the Gallery/Studio represents the fulfillment of a life-long dream, “I had to do it in order to live.”

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Text and Photographs by: Playthell G. Benjamin

 

Reginald Rousseau: Artist Gallery Owner

Lisa DuBois: Artist / Curator

A Black Magic Woman!

 

 

ATTENTION FELLOW AMERICANS!!!!

An Insurrectionist Trumpist Mob Attacks the US Capitol 

OUR CONSTITUTIONAL REPUBLIC IS FALLING APART!!

The video below of a discussion on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” supplies further evidence that the Republican Party has devolved into a LAWLESS TRUMPIST CULT! It is the measure of the extent to which our Constitutional Democracy is falling apart.  Those who are witnessing the course of political events in our nation yet refuse to believe that widespread internecine violence – a form of “civil war” similar to the protracted violence between Catholics and Protestants that occurred during “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, – is possible in the US are deluding themselves.

As this analysis makes plain, we are rapidly approaching a point where honest bipartisan discourse leading to the pursuit of justice based on the time-honored principle that NO ONE IS ABOVE THE LAW, is becoming impossible. Especially since millions of Americans are getting their “news” from different sources that are giving them radically different perspectives on events. Professional historians agree that the last time our two major political parties were so divided was 1860, when the United States broke apart in Civil War!

Back then it was a war between the states, but the present conflict is based purely on ideology, divergent views of what this nation should be. However, when coupled with the regional economic interests of the South in maintaining slavery, one could also argue that the war between the states was also driven by ideology. These irreconcilable visions of society have been the traditional cause of civil strife in nations around the world.  There is abundant evidence that the fanaticism of the Trumpist cult is tearing families apart; alienation from the family is a fundamental characteristic of cultist behavior.  A poignant case in point is the sad experience of  Alyssa Farah, a former Director of White House Communications, who says her father and stepmother boycotted her wedding because she denounced Trump’s role in inciting the Jan 6, assault on the US Capitol!  These kinds of incidents, which is evidence of serious political conflict in the primary family unit, is a class of phenomenon that presages the onset of civil war throughout history.

Yet because the present evolving conflict will NOT be a war between the states like the 19th Century conflagration, many smart politically astute Americans do not recognize the protracted conflict that we are experiencing as a LOW INTENSITY civil war. But people who study this phenomenon for a living SAY IT IS!!! In fact, there are two recently published books on this subject: “The Coming Civil War” and “How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them.”

We would be wise to carefully study the arguments put forth in these informative – and I believe prescient – texts. For if the US continues down the path we are heading unabated, conventional wisdom suggest the intensity of our ideological conflict will become increasingly violent. In a nation where armed right-wing extremist and ad hoc white supremacist militiamen routinely show up at peaceful demonstrations, and government buildings where policies they disagree with are being implemented, dressed in combat fatigues brandishing military weapons, armed conflict armed conflict on a widening scale is destined to occur: It’s just a matter of time!

Unless we can find a way to change the course on which we are headed at accelerating speed, alas this portends our future. Kyle Rittenhouse, an enraged confused white boy who armed himself with a military assault rifle, travelled across state lines, and murdered peaceful demonstrators…and was later acquitted by an all-white jury presided over by a blatantly biased Judge, and was offered Internships by Republican Congressmen who are openly hostile to the Black Lives Matter protests against police murders of unarmed black folks, is a preview of what our future could look like.

The Video posted here dramatically exposes the depth of the chasm between the right-wing Trumpist faction of the Republican Party – which is reconstructing the Grand Old Party of Abraham Lincoln and Jacob Javitz into the neo-Fascist Grand Obstructionist Party of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz – and the rest of us.  Including a good slice of the Republican intelligentsia -like producers of the “Lincoln Project” and former Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele – who still believe in, and want to preserve, Constitutional Democracy in America. And the first step to defeating the trend toward fascism is to DEFEAT the Republicans at the polls in the COMING ELECTIONS!!!!!

 

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Click to see Morning Joe

Kurt Bardella: Why Aren’t Republicans Chanting ‘Lock Him Up” Over Document Destruction? – YouTube

 

Click to see Steele on The Reidout

https://youtu.be/unbmod_VPag

The Struggle for Black History

Dr. Carter G. Woodson

 Correcting the Master Narrative of America

“If you lie about anybody’s history you must lie about it all…

Which means If I am not what I have been told I am

You are not what you have been told you are either”

James Baldwin

Although most Americans appear oblivious or indifferent to it, February is Black History Month.  In black communities all across the nation it is a time for celebrating the struggles and achievements of our great ancestors.  It began as “Negro History Week,” when it was established by Dr. Carter G. Woodson in 1926 – during the cultural revivalist movement known as “The Harlem Renaissance” – and later extended to Black History Month during the turbulent anti-racist struggles of the 1960’s.   Dr. Woodson, who held a PhD in history from Harvard, founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915 – a period when the public crucifixion of Afro-Americans called “lynching” had averaged three a day since 1882 – in an effort to rescue black people from extinction in America.

Like the great Civil Rights/labor leader A. Phillip Randolph, a founder of the Brotherhood of sleeping Car Porters, Dr. Woodson believed this effort at racial uplift should be financed by Afro-Americans themselves.  Hence, rather than seek grants from white controlled government or private agencies and organizations, Woodson sold memberships to the Association. As a return on their investment members received the Negro History Bulletin, a publication of the ASNLH that presented fascinating facts about the accomplishments of their race.  Black people of all nationalities and classes bought memberships; it was a model of successful academic entrepreneurship rarely. if ever, equaled by a project in the humanities.  Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates’s Encarta Africana project may be the exception, but his project was financed by a corporate partnership not black community financing.

A voluntary group of professional scholars – black and white – the ASNLH is dedicated to excavating and publishing the history black people, employing state of the art research methods.  In 1916, only a year after founding the Association, Dr. Woodson established the Journal of Negro History, to publish the findings of the new historians he was training for peer review and public consumption.  To understand the enormous importance of Dr. Woodson’s efforts, it is enough to point out that all of the great Afro-American historians who emerged in the first half of the 20th century studied with him.  Among these are the distinguished historians Rayford Logan and John Hope Franklin, both like Woodson, holders of the Harvard PhD in history.  Dr. John Hope Franklin has evaluated Woodson’s contribution in “The Place of Carter G. Woodson in American Historiography.”

Dr. WEB DuBois, the first Afro-American to earn a PhD from Harvard in 1895, and in 1896 Harvard published his thesis “The Suppression of the African Slave Trade.” The first scientific historical study of Afro-Americans, spoke of Woodson in heroic terms.

“Woodson literally made this country, which has only the slightest respect for people of color, recognize and celebrate each year, a week in which it studied the effect which the American Negro has upon the life, thought and action in the United States.  I know of no one who in a lifetime has, unaided, built up such a national celebration.”

A more expansive view of Dr. Woodson, and what Dr. Dubois thought of him can be found in “Reconsidering the Souls of Black Folk,” a book of two interpretive essays on Dr. DuBois by Stanley Crouch and the present writer.

Yet it is quite enough to say that Dr. Woodson dedicated his life and career to setting the historical record straight regarding the contribution of black folks to American civilization because he was convinced that their survival in the US depended upon it. Looking around the world Woodson witnessed the destruction of Native Americans; the growing extinction of the Australian Aborigines; the Maori people of New Zealand; and the atrocities of the Belgium King Leopold II in the Congo.

Leopold’s crimes so outraged the great white American writer. Mark Twain, that he moved to denounce the Belgium King and catalogued his horrendous crimes in “The Soliloquy of King Leopold.”  These events convinced Woodson of the gravitas and urgency of his historical project, because he was convinced that western nations that considered themselves “civilized” were quite willing tolerate genocide against peoples they considered sub-human and thus expendable in the advance of western civilization.  The native “American Indian” offered a home grow example of the fate that could befall Afro-Americans.

Although the world has turned upside down in the century that has passed since Dr. Woodson founded the ASNLH, I believe those who argue that Black History Month celebrations is an anachronism, a relic from a bye gone era that has outlived its usefulness in a nation that has elected an African American president twice, are tragically mistaken.  As I write there are attempts to scrub the historical record of shameful facts about America’s bloody history of racial oppression and genocide led by politicians in several states: Arizona, Virginia, Texas, et. al.

This is no picayune matter; it is an organized effort to suppress information that contradicts a master narrative that portrays American civilization as the “essential nation” the “shining city on the hill,” founded on the principle that “all men are created equal,” and has always promoted “liberty and Justice for all.”  Since it is these claims upon which the “American Exceptionalists” base their vision of the world, any counter-narrative which contradicts that vision must be denied – no matter what the facts say.

This is why the struggle to teach black history – without which there can be no valid “American” history – must continue. And Black History Month is the most powerful vehicle for raising the consciousness of the nation on the need to take a candid look at itself..  For as the Harvard philosopher George Santayana warned: “Those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat its mistakes.”

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Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

Black History Month, 2018