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En (Avant) Garde!: Black American Artists for and Against Black Aesthetics

Thu, November 9, 2:00 to 3:45pm, Hyatt Regency Chicago, Addams, Third Floor West Tower

Abstract

In her celebrated 2009 TED Talk, writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie alerted listeners to “the danger of the single story.” That is, the reduction of lives and histories to a single narrative implies sameness, conceals complexity and ultimately denies humanity. Nonetheless, in academia and art institutions, modern black American art typically is presented as something that invariably exhibits a black aesthetic—culturally specific forms or moral, political content—which reinforces the idea of black Americans as monolithic. Thus, my paper will discuss artists from the 1920s to the 1970s, who I term the “black avant-garde.” These artists—Bruce Nugent, Alma Thomas, Bob Thompson and David Hammons, among others—problematized rather than codified blackness.
While monographs on many of these painters, sculptors and performers exist, there is not yet a text that demonstrates their combined role in establishing a black artistic tradition of ambivalence, criticality, and provocation. Black avant-gardists created art that touches on divisive themes, such as class, beauty, gender, the body and sexuality, that historically have been ignored or silenced within black cultural discourses as they operated in the aesthetic modes of larger American avant-garde movements, such as abstraction and conceptualism. Moreover, the black avant-garde challenged notions of a singular black expression long before the postmodern era. Art histories often suggest black artists began to test the limits of what are appropriate images or subjects for black art in the 1970s or later. Yet black avant-gardists actually were precursors to and inspirations for celebrated contemporary artists, such as Kara Walker, Robert Colescott, Ellen Gallagher and Mark Bradford.
Therefore, like the original militaristic meaning of avant-garde, black avant-gardism presupposes both an oppositional force and an alliance it advances, and black audiences ironically serve both of these roles. On the one hand, many black viewers have viewed avant-garde art as elitist and irrelevant, especially to sociopolitical struggles. On the other hand, black avant-gardists enrich representations of this same group of people. In generating opposition from various black critics and leaders, black avant-gardists liberated their own artistic expressions and advanced the ways in which black Americans could see and express their own selves.

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