Art

Pride and prejudice

The co-curators of ‘Negritude’ — Peggy Blood and Neeta Omprakash — talk about the reasons for the slow acceptance of African American art in the global scene

Artist Dr Willie Hooker’s ‘Black Man Looking into a White World’ sums up the soul of the exhibition of African American art on at the Durbar Hall Art Gallery. The sculpture is a face with one half painted black and the other half white — a powerful representation of a black man living through the 1960s civil rights movement in America. Willie is a professor of art at North Carolina

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Pride and prejudice

Much of the works on display are nuanced narratives of African American history mingled with contemporary realities. Organised by the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi, ‘Negritude’ is the first show of its kind in Asia held by the National Alliance of Artists from Historical Black Colleges and Universities (NAAHBCU), USA. After its run in Kochi, the exhibition will travel to Ahiwasi gallery, Banaras Hindu University in March, followed by Gallery Nandan, Kala Bhavan Santiniketan, West Bengal. In April, it will be hosted by DakshinChitra, Chennai, and then move to Art Gallery Sanskriti Bhavan, Department of Art and Culture, Government of Goa.

Pride and prejudice

Curated by Dr Peggy Blood, artist and teacher, the show explores “the black identity” in art. As a student in the segregated South of the US, Peggy was the first American of African descent to receive a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

Edited excerpts from an interview with Peggy Blood.

Pride and prejudice

How would you describe the current African American art scene in the US?

African American art today in the USA is more visible and popular than in the past especially after the ‘Black Lives Matter Movement’ ( an international activist movement that campaigns against violence and systemic racism), although no more than 2% of USA’s major museums display art created by African Americans. Since 2014, there has been a gradual recognition that the populace wants to experience diversity in museums, purchase African American art and engage with it.

The slow acceptance of Black art has mostly been due to prejudice, stereotypes and the misconception that the white world is not able to relate to works by African American artists. If one takes the race component out, Black art is relatable to all groups regardless of race or ethnicity.

The works of most African American artists are as political as they are personal.

African American art is just as diverse as any ethnic group. Although some works by Black Americans are political in nature, this is because the culture still faces discrimination. Artists have always been the chief visual communicators and translators of society’s temperature. Since Black artists are part of the political nucleus in USA, it is natural that their creative expression will communicate the temperate and raw soul of the nation.

How much of a role does race play in art ?

As artists, we want to be viewed as “artists”, however, whenever you live in a racial environment, one cannot escape the term; you must take the lemons with the lemonade.

How would you describe your artistic journey?

My journey as an artist is intertwined with my being an educator. The two life paths complement each other, both provoke inquiry from the creator and the observer, this has been a wonderful challenge throughout my life.

Could you tell me a bit about your association with the NAAHBCU?

In 1998 I was among many who were contacted by Dr Lee Ransaw, NAAHBCU Board chairman, to explore the possibility of starting an organisation that focused on members of and from Historical Black Colleges and Universities. In 1999, we met and the organisation was formed and I served as a board member and treasurer and in 2010, I became president of The National Alliance of Artists from Historical Black Colleges and Universities (NAAHBCU). (It is a non-profit professional organisation that educates, promotes artists and art programs within Historical Black Colleges and Universities).

What does the word “colour” mean to an African American artist?

I am not able to speak for all black artists but usually its use is associated with power and strong emotions.

The Indian connect
  • Co-curator of the show, Neeta Omprakash, has always wanted to bring African American art to India. While curating an exhibition of Indian American Artists and African American Artists in Eastern Connecticut State University, she did a comparative study of the art of both the groups. “I started reading about the history of African American art specifically Harlem Renaissance (an intellectual, social, and artistic explosion centred in Harlem, Manhattan, New York City in the 1920s). Their struggle for freedom from slavery and demand for equality led them to reclaim their African legacy with pride. The Indian freedom movement has similarity with their struggle,” she says.
  • The show would resonate with Indians in America as well as in India in re-claiming the cultural heritage, mythology, folk tales, arts and craft. “This need of claiming an identity is an obsession with all post-colonial societies. Africans who were oppressed in America demanded a distinct identity on the basis of their rich art, architecture, craft, music and religious philosophy. In India, during the Swadeshi moment, there was a call for reviving our ancient art, craft, mythology, Sanskrit, folk as well as classical music. The oppression of a certain section of society is common to both the countries, the difference is that in America it is racial, and in India it is based on caste.”

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 2:55:32 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/art/negritude-a-show-of-african-american-art-explores-the-black-identity/article30592687.ece

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