The intersection of visual art and music as representations of culture was particularly prevalent in the first part of the twentieth century in both the deep South as well as in the North after the Great Migration. The African American experience during this period of history was often difficult because of the prevalence of overt and covert racism, Jim Crow laws in the South, and overall oppression. However, despite these challenges, the persistence of character and strength of black Americans could be seen in their solidification of community through creative expression.
This period of time in the black community has been the subject of many artists’ work and has been portrayed in a variety of mediums. Common themes include jazz and blues music, spirituals and religious folk songs, cultural and religious rituals, shared experiences of grief and oppression, and the importance of community and family. The ways in which artists have combined these themes into visual representation of their experiences are as diverse as the experiences themselves.
Recently I accompanied the CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts) conference in Charlotte, NC with a group of colleagues from Hillside Missions. It was a time of reflection, conversation, and encouragement alongside other arts-focused followers of Jesus. I know that I personally felt revived and inspired after our time there.
The conference had a featured artist, Steve Prince, who makes linoleum cut prints. His work is informed by his experiences growing up in New Orleans, Biblical narratives, historically significant events for the black community, and Prince’s personal perspective as an African American man who grew up in the unique culture of New Orleans. His black and white linocuts are expressive, full of symbolism, and invade the space of the viewer by forcing them to confront the stories and symbols presented in the picture plane.
Another artist who made work in response to his experiences as a black man in the American South was Romare Bearden (check out my earlier blog post about another example of his portrayal of Baptism). Bearden spent his early years and childhood summers in Mecklenburg County, NC. The spiritual, ritual, and cultural memories he made during his time there were formative and eventually became the subject for many of his collage works. Much like Prince’s work, Bearden’s paintings and collages center on the themes of jazz, improvisation, religion, and symbolism to demonstrate the collective memory of black men and women.
Although the styles of artistic representation are very different for both of these artists, a lot of the ideas in their work overlap. Both artists include elements of jazz and blues (two musical styles with African and black American roots) in many of their paintings. Bearden spent most of his adolescent and young adult years in the North when jazz and blues music were emerging, especially in the area around Harlem. The improvisation and expressiveness of the music was, in a very similar way, also present in the visual arts.
Bearden and Prince both have channeled that energy and spirit in the expression and creativity of their respective works. In two specific examples, we can really see how both artists are utilizing the beats, repetition, and syncopation of these music styles as models for how they chose to represent their subjects. Not only do the artists portray jazz by the style in which they paint/draw/assemble, but they also use musical motifs and objects to draw even deeper connections between visual art and music.
First, Steve Prince’s linocut Flambeau portrays a processional of different figures, both human and animal. Flambeau is the multi-lit torch used traditionally in Mardi Gras marches in New Orleans. Prince, originally from New Orleans, frequently uses motifs and objects from the unique culture of Louisiana in his art. This particular work is a portrayal of the parade of this festival, particularly the moments of the start of the march through the city streets. The figures are weaved organically through one another, and the rhythm of the instruments and the march of the people are visually represented through the ebbs and flows of contouring lines. The movement of the lines and figures mimics the movement of the music of Mardi Gras. The beats and syncopation of the drums, both the pictorial drums and the implied drums, resonate in the mind of the viewer.
Romare Bearden’s The Prevalence of Ritual: Baptism depicts a group of people in the water, possibly a river or stream, during a baptism experience. The figures themselves are composites of photographs and images of African masks, fragments from magazine cutouts, as well as painted and penciled components. The various layers and pieces are placed strategically together to form an image that, although fragmented, is also cohesive. Through this kind of imagery, Bearden creates a rhythmic relationship between not only human figures, but also the assembled parts of the figures. African mask pieces serve as the faces and body parts of the men and women in the scene, adding yet another layer of identity and meaning to the figures. The collective memory of black Americans as descendants from Africa, as well as their experiences of slavery and oppression in America are represented through Bearden’s use of these masks.
These two artists have combined their personal experiences with significant motifs to show the intersection of memory and present cultural circumstances. Both individual memory and collective memory as a common ancestry inform the style, as well as the subjects of their work.
Our identities as believers in Christ also function in similar ways. We share a common heritage of both our Jewish ancestors and the foundational early Church, and we have our individual memories from the experiences in our lives. These memories shape our perception of the world and how we interact with one another. We are products of our pasts, our heritage, and our current cultures. God uses all of these things to mold and shape us, along with the workings of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. Although there are inherent truths about each of us because we are made in the image of God, we are also influenced by our surroundings and the events in our lives. They color our views of ourselves, of God, and of the world.