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!

 

 

It Don’t Mean a Thing If it ain’t got that Swing!

Remembering Stanley Crouch

BLUES FOR A WORD SORCERER

Alas, the sad news has reached my ears that Stanley Crouch, a unique tribune of our times, has danced and joined the ancestors. A poet, essayist, dramatist, short story writer and novelist. Stanley was by any objective measure a GREAT writer. A native of South Central Los Angeles, Stanley began writing for the theater in a company that grew out of the great Watts riot of 1965. When I met him in 1968, he was a Poet in Residence at Pomona, one of the prestigious Claremont Colleges, just outside LA, popularly known as “The Harvard of the West.”

I was visiting the school as a guest lecturer to help make the case for the importance of Black Studies, add Stanley was part of the black campus movement attempting to establish a Black Studies Department. At the time he was a militant Black Nationalist, decked in a dishiki, dark shades with a big Afro, and had just produced a collection of weaponized words, radical poems titled: “Ain’t No Ambulances for No Niggers Tonight!”

It was clear that Stanley shared the view of writing advocated by the peerless word warrior, Ishmael Reed: “Writin is Fightin.” And although he would eventually reject Radical Black Nationalism, and abandon his leftist literary comrades, he remained a literary pugilist who would later skewer those comrades in a critically acclaimed collection of essays: “Notes Of A Hanging Judge.” For which he was awarded the highly prestigious “MacArthur Genius Award.

Stanley would become one of the most decorated writers in American letters. Primarily an essayist, Stanley wrote on a variety of subjects, but his greatest distinction was as a masterful critic of the quintessential American art of Jazz, which he correctly viewed as the great contribution of US civilization to the canon of great art. I discovered his love for Jazz the first time we met.

After my speech he invited me over to his crib to hang out, and he had a set of drums in his living room. Having once played the drum kit myself, but had long abandoned them for the Afro-Cuban Conga drums, I had remained a fan and was interested in hearing him play. He put on a record and began to play along. He said he was working on “some different stuff,” that he was not ready to reveal. Among the students hangin out was the young lady who later became the famous television star “Judge Mable, and a young saxophonist I believe was Davis Murray, who became one of the truly original voices on the tenor sax.

After that visit I didn’t see Stanley again until about six years later, when we met again in New York. But I had followed his brilliant column “Crouch on Jazz,” which was published in Players magazine, a black version of Playboy. I thought they were the most elegantly crafted insightful was essays I had ever read on the art of Jazz. There was a grandeur to his conception of the music that set his writing apart from the common lot of critics, even in the Big Apple, where good writers are common fare.

Crouch’s writings on Jazz conjured up the observation of Zora Neal Hurston in a letter to James Weldon Johnson – two great early 20th century Afro-American writers who migrated from Northern Florida to the Big Apple just like me – when she said: “We are a people who love magnificence and cannot get too much of it.” In New York he joined the staff at the Village Voice, an incubator of great music critics.

From his conspicuous prestigious perch at the Village Voice, Crouch quickly became the most outstanding Jazz critic in the big Apple…the world capitol of Jazz. And his influence became such that Stanley an intellectual mentor to the trumpet genius and brilliant composer Wynton Marsalis, and was a major force in the creation of “Jazz Lincoln Center,” the nation’s most important monument to Afro-American culture!

Known as “the writer’s paper,” and the “home of the New Journalism,” the Voice, with its reverence for fine English prose and creative storytelling, was the perfect place for Stanley, as the editors prized the individual writers voice – especially the great Bob Christgeau, who edited Stanley’s finest essays penned during his tenure at the voice. Several of which ended up as award winning anthologies.

Stanley really blossomed at the Voice, as he branched out from Jazz criticism and wrote about art, literature and politics. Although the subjects of his interest changed, his poetic style didn’t, concocting a prose style that prized poetic simile and metaphor. Often his prose seemed to dance off the page, animated by the polyrhythmic phrases.

A lover of literature, I was bewitched by Stanley’s compositions and avidly read his texts. In conversations about various and sundry issues, Stanly began to chide me about writing more, At the time my writing was limited to a few academic treatises published in obscure journals, and the lyrics to songs I had written for a great singer with whom I was smitten.

Stanley began to chide me to write more. He would say: “Listen man, it would be so easy for you because you speak in essays.” I was a voracious reader, and I was always telling him about something I had read. But one day he said to me: “You know why you read so much? Because reading is a lot easier than writing!”

He badgered me until I began to take myself seriously as a writer. And once I started I have been unable to stop having now written hundreds of serious essays…1000 of them posted at www.commentariesonthetimes.wordpress.com.  (However at present I have a dispute with WordPress and the site is suspended, which is why I started this blog) I have written for some of the finest publications in the English language, here and in England. Along the way I have won several awards, and two Pulitzer Prize nominations for Feature Writing and Distinguished Commentary.

The nominating letters are posted on by bio here. Had it not been for Stanley’s insistent prodding and encouragement, I might never have pursued a writing career. We became serious intellectual sparring partners for years.

In 2003, Stanley and I was commissioned to write a book commemorating the 100th anniversary of Dr. WEB DuBois’ classic American text: “The Souls of Black Folk.” Since I was a co-founder of the WEB DuBois Department of Black Studies at the University of Massachusetts in 1969, one year after our first meeting – the first free standing, degree granting, Black Studies department in the world, and acquired Dr, DuBois’s voluminous papers – and held a professorship in history there, we agreed that I would write the historical overview, reconstructing the intellectual milieu, in the US and Germany – that shaped DuBois’s education and worldview.

Reconsidering The Souls of Black Folk” consists of two complex essays in intellectual, cultural and political history and criticism centered around the historical context, text and legacy of “The Souls of Black Folk” and its brilliant author. The book was selected for discussion at the opening session of the National Black Writers Conference, sponsored by Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, and hosted by the Studio Museum of Harlem. C-Spans Book World covered the event, and I have appended the link to their video below.

See> https://www.c-span.org/video/

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Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

September, 2020 {Original Publication}