A Black British Artist Asks, “What Was Africa to the Harlem Renaissance?”

“In the museum, the rapture of self-gratification rots our eyes, a secret contempt of others dries up our hearts,” Whyte continues, quoting Aimé Césaire, as a Benin frieze scrolls by; on another screen, a gloved hand turns the pages of a photo album. She delivers a verdict: “No, in the scales of knowledge, the mass of all the museums in the world could never outweigh a lone spark of human empathy.” The collaged texts are paired with scenes from two classic films about plunder and repatriation: Nii Kwate Owoo’s “You Hide Me” (1970), which follows two young Africans into the storerooms of the British Museum, and Chris Marker’s “Statues Also Die” (1953), its title inverted in Julien’s. One strange fruit of colonial theft, Julien reminds us, was diasporic collaboration. But the weight of history, and the growing prominence of debates over restitution, throws a different light on Locke’s resurrection of African sculpture. What does it mean, we might ask, to fashion a New Negro from a kinsman’s scattered limbs?

Julien’s installation leaves open the possibility that Locke’s Africanism was a failure. He knew, and could know, very little about the sculptures he so admired—which, at the time, were frequently attributed to the wrong ethnic groups and eras. Nearly a century after he challenged Barnes, the millionaire’s institution endures, while Locke’s efforts to build his own led to embarrassment. Once, at the behest of Charlotte Osgood Mason—an even more zealously primitivist patron of the Renaissance—Locke reluctantly asked Paul Robeson to give a benefit concert for the museum while wearing an African mask. The great singer politely refused.

In the nineteen-thirties, many took a dim view of Locke’s Africanism, which was decried as a concession to segregation. Black artists of the next generation, such as Romare Bearden, revolted against the “coddling and patronizing” white benefactors the older man had worked with; by contrast, the New Deal created more neutral sources of funding for Black artists through programs such as the W.P.A. The critiques reached their zenith in the seventies, when historians like David Levering Lewis recast Locke’s endeavors, and the Harlem Renaissance, as an élite diversion of radical energy into the impotent world of high culture. Such arguments still have purchase, especially in an era when the prestige of Black art has again so far outpaced material progress for Black Americans as to cast doubt on any significant relationship between them.

But the art historian Kobena Mercer argues that Locke’s culturalism has been misconstrued. In a new book, “Alain Locke and the Visual Arts”—felicitously coincident with Julien’s installation—he convincingly challenges the “received image” of his subject as an “effete Afro-Edwardian aesthete” with no firm concept of the relationship between art, politics, and empire. Locke may have been a snob, but he was also, in Mercer’s account, a pragmatist, who believed that Black political solidarity needed a renewed cultural foundation; an anti-imperialist, sensitive to the ways that colonialism had transformed native art into creative capital; and a pluralist, whose interest in African sculpture was less a backward-looking reclamation of roots than a reckoning with loss prerequisite to cross-cultural renewal.

Although Locke’s museum was never built, he did make a significant body of African sculpture accessible to Black American artists. In 1926, he persuaded a friend to purchase a few dozen Congolese art works from a Belgian diplomat, and these pieces later toured historically Black colleges throughout the United States. Now held by the Schomburg Center in Harlem, the collection likely influenced Romare Bearden, who incorporated the blue patterning of one distinctive Kuba mask from the collection into his painting “The Family.” (The post-Harlem generation may have rejected aspects of Locke’s Africanism, Mercer explains, but they had already digested its insights.) Another influential legacy was “The Negro in Art” (1940), a picture book whose juxtaposition of African, European, and American traditions was ahead of its time in its proto-multiculturalism and rejection of “evolutionist” chronology. The freedom of print reproduction, Mercer explains, allowed Locke to build what André Malraux called a musée imaginaire, showcasing the many ways in which “elements that survived a catastrophic past may undergo metamorphosis and be granted an afterlife.”

Artists of the era shared Locke’s emphasis on death and resurrection. Reflecting on works by Palmer Hayden, Malvin Gray Johnson, Lois Mailou Jones, and others, Mercer demonstrates that mourning was central to Harlem Renaissance Africanism. Masks that often appeared in still-lifes from the era, he writes, can be seen as analogous to the skulls in the Western tradition of vanitas or memento mori. In a striking interpretation of Jones’s celebrated painting “Les Fétiches” (1938), which depicts an ensemble of African statuary swirling in a charged darkness, he writes that the work embodies not a straightforward reclamation of roots but the tragedy and the promise of diaspora. “Jones’s masks are double-facing,” he writes, “for they are abyss-crossing icons of black survival, open to new constellations in a galaxy of multiple possibilities for the future of black life.”

Perhaps the most fascinating argument that Mercer advances concerns sexuality. Locke came of age amid a Victorian wave of gay aestheticism that looked to classical art as inspiration for a new homosexual identity. Photographers such as Fred Holland Day and Wilhelm von Gloeden staged homoerotic scenes from antiquity with contemporary models, while writers such as John Addington Symonds—who, in an 1878 translation, brought out of the closet Michelangelo’s sonnets to his young lover—began to reconstruct the literary history of gay love. Nearly as popular as Greek motifs were Black male models, whose appeal, Mercer says, derived in part from the association of racial difference with sexual transgression. This Victorian alignment of the Black male body with classical homoeroticism set the stage for the Harlem Renaissance, when Black artists and a few white fellow-travellers mobilized it for their own ends. In art works such as Richmond Barthé’s sculpture of Féral Benga, a Senegalese dancer, swaying gently with a sword; Carl van Vechten’s private photo-portraits of naked models posing with African statuary; or Richard Bruce Nugent’s sensuous silhouette illustrations for Fire!!, the Black male body became a vector of the future—or, as Mercer puts it in the title of his final chapter, “Homo Negro, Endlessly New.”

The phrase captures a symmetry between queer self-fashioning and the African American search for heritage. Neither Victorian gays nor New Negroes could simply inherit their identities; instead, each group had to invent its ancestors, piecing them together from discontinuous pasts. Although Locke is often called the godfather of the Harlem Renaissance, Mercer notes that he liked to describe himself as its midwife, a label that he borrowed from Socrates. If fatherhood implies one all-determining lineage, queer midwifery suggests a more collaborative approach to cultural identity—a chosen family of ancestors and ancestral arts. It’s an ethos that lives on in the work of artists like Isaac Julien, a longtime friend and collaborator of Mercer’s and someone whose cinematic constellations he cites as an influence on his approach. How appropriate, then, that “Statues Never Die” moves from the graveyard of the anthropology museum to the erotics of the workshop, where the act of looking together at the past allows something new to begin. ♦

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