Towards Liberation + Abstraction: Haiti as a Trope of Resistance in Modern African American Art



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Towards Liberation + Abstraction: Haiti as a Trope of Resistance in Modern African American Art

(Rough draft – thesis presentation)


Panel 24 of Jacob Lawrence’s Toussaint L’Ouverture series, titled General L’Ouverture confers with his principal aides at the city of Dondon, depicts leaders of the Haitian Revolution strategizing their military plan of action against Napoleon’s French army. Lawrence depicts the Haitian Revolution not as a massive, uncontrolled slave revolt, but as a reasonable historical event where black slaves were able to get together and carefully coordinate their overtaking of France’s wealthiest colony. Unlike the white Spanish and French colonizers disputing over a black map of the island of Hispanola in Panel four (an image which is unavailable), the Haitian Revolutionary leaders remove their hats and swords. This indicates that the revolution was not an act of conquest similar to the island’s former colonists but one of diplomacy and reason. It was an act related to the war being waged but altogether separate from war’s inhumanity.

The Toussaint L’Ouverture series is the first among American artist Jacob Lawrence’s many historically-based narrative paintings and prints series, and the series depicts the life of Haitian Revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture alongside the history of Haiti up to its independence. Comprised of 41 panels at 11” by 19”, the title of each panel and the corresponding subject of each image often inform each other, though they do not necessarily overlap. {NEXT PLEASE} While the titles recall historical facts, the images work with playful forms and colors that recall those of American modernists such as Stuart Davis {whose 1954 painting Colonial Cubism, is presented to your left) and Arthur Dove {with his 1931 painting Fields of Grain as Seen From Train,to the right}. Further, several of the images from the Toussaint L’Ouverture series recreate a historical reality that, much like Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War print series, begs the viewer to relate the complicated and agonizing past with the contemporary lack of equality and reason. Given Haiti’s status as the world’s first black republic – a feat achieved through a successful slave uprising which eventually overtook Napoleon’s army and his most prized colonial possession – Haiti came to serve as a successful trope of resistance for artists such as Lawrence. By correlating Haiti with their personal experiences of oppression within U.S. society and the art world, artists rendered the history and culture of Haiti as a symbol of resistance by representing Haiti outside of the degrading primitivist stereotypes common during their time. In other words, African American artists depicted Haiti as a rich, hybrid (culturally European + African mixed) society that proved Haitians were free, unique individuals despite historical turmoil and U.S. colonialism.

{NEXT PLEASE} Panel 23, titled “General L’Ouverture collected forces at Marmelade and on October 9, 1794, left with 500 men to capture San Miguel” evokes this sense of resistance. The former slaves appear in their regal uniforms as flat and sharp red, muddy violet, tan, black and white shapes, marching in front of tall green grasses into battle. The viewers’ eyes march alongside the advancing army, who coalesce into a powerful, rhythmic aesthetic force. Also drawing a direct influence from cubist masters such as Picasso, Jacob Lawrence applied modern forms of abstraction to the historical narrative to create art works that could socially and politically speak to an oppressed African American audience. As art historian Patricia Hills notes, “By rejecting illusionism, Lawrence eliminated focus, texture, and hence, the hierarchy of values that focus and texture entail” (47). Hills suggests that Lawrence’s flat, simple shapes informed his humanistic endeavors, creating images that abstracted historical forms into the contemporary, modern consciousness.

In this paper, I will argue that Lawrence was not the only one who turned to this pictorial strategy. In fact, many African American artists likewise applied social and political significance to their abstract forms. This may sound counterintuitive given that artists such as Dove, Davis, and Picasso, for the most part, did not use abstraction for political ends. But, as Richard J. Powell notes [and I quote at legnth]:

Historically confined to exhibiting their works in “all Negro” art exhibitions and left out of the national forums on American art, several African American artists extended abstraction’s call for individual and artistic freedom to the art world’s racial front. Beyond an aesthetic affinity for abstraction, some African American artists also saw their move to abstraction as a personal and professional step toward artistic integration: a step that symbolized their willingness to subordinate blackness – and all that was associated with it – and to place themselves and their work in a larger, wider and, ultimately, whiter art world that provided more opportunities to exhibit, sell, and enter into artistic dialogue with others. [End quote] (Black Art102)

This new freedom and placement within the whiter art world that Powell describes is not indicative of color blindness, but rather of black artists engaging with white contemporaries to create a critical dialogue that ultimately challenges the tenets of primitivism.

{NEXT PLEASE} Many African American artists such as Aaron Douglass and Jacob Lawrence began to depict African American culture through a visually modern lens during the Harlem Renaissance, a movement most known for its literary and theatrical achievements during the 1920’s and 1930’s. This use of abstraction to present African American culture is seen in Aaron Douglass’s 1934 mural Aspects of a Negro Life: From Slavery through Reconstruction, completed for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a library Jacob Lawrence frequented in Harlem and used for his research on the Toussaint L’Ouverture series. Though the piece is largely figurative, the viewer is most engaged with forms and color that help construct the visual narrative, particularly the silhouettes of the figures and the concentric circles towards the upper center and center right end of the mural. {NEXT PLEASE} Douglass himself engaged with the topic of Haiti with illustrations he completed in 1926 for a Eugene O’Neill play titled Emperor Jones {Emperor Jones being depicted in this 1926 woodcut titled Defiance}. Emperor Jones was a fictional play based on a black, modern character that references Toussaint L’Ouverture, Haitian revolutionary general and emperor Henry Cristophe, and the Haitian Revolution. His use of modernistic strategies may be observed in the simplistic shapes and overall composition of the black and white illustration, which doesn’t stray too far off from his murals and paintings.

One of the key, influential thinkers during the Harlem Renaissance was writer and philosopher Alain LeRoy Locke, who in the early 1920’s wrote [and I quote at length]:

The African spirit, as we said at the outset, is at its best in abstract decorative forms. Design, and to a lesser degree, color, are its original fortes. It is this aspect of the folk tradition, this slumbering gift of the folk temperament that most needs reachievement and reexpression. And if African art is capable of producing the ferment in modern art that it has, surely this is not too much to expect of its influence upon the culturally awakened Negro artist of the present generation. [End quote] (267)
Locke suggests embracing the abstract decorative forms modernism popularized and applying it to a folk temperament. While Locke’s quotation may invoke all of African art, I suggest that Locke specifically encourages African American artists to readapt modernism to an authentic folkloric that was not simplistic and primitive but very contemporary and dynamic.

Sieglinde Lemke analyzes this reinterpretation of the primitive and modern with the folkloric in his 1998 book Primitivist Modernism: Black Culture and the Origins of Transantlantic Modernism. Lemke suggests that modernism has four aesthetic trends, the fourth of which all artists discussed in today’s presentation fall. The fourth trend is that of the primitivist modernist aesthetic, which is “composed of art works in which formal and cultural differences are interrelated” (145). Drawing from Toni Morrison’s critical text Playing in the Dark, Lemke identifies Morrison’s argument that white artists were creating an Africanist persona that “enables the white self (character, writer and reader) to explore its most sublimated fears and desires. It does not matter that the Africanist persona is represented as loyal, inferior, rebellious or fearful. What matters is that the persona remains a projection of white desire and fear” (Lemke 10). Primitivist modernists critically challenged the formal savage/civilized binary of modernism by reinterpreting and valorizing the primitive not as an object of white fear and desire. Such artists directly related instead the visual with the social and political, not surprising given that racism itself is based in the visual (skin color). My research suggests that Haiti is central to this process.

From 1930’s to 1950’s, many African American artists, writers, and intellectuals were traveling to Haiti, locating a cultural site praised for its syncretic retaining of African traditions within a Euro-American framework and its historical significance as a symbol of colonial liberation. Haitian religion and culture are highly regarded for being a hybrid of European and African traditions, a creolized culture artists could use to resist the social and political (or more overtly, racial) implications of dominant U.S. and European modernism. In her 1999 dissertation Searching for a Black Republic: The Textual Invention of Haiti by U.S. Black Artists in the 1930’s, Suzanne Jacqueline Spoor makes literary, theatrical, and artistic links between Haiti and African Americans. Her text demonstrates the influence creolized Haiti had upon artists who themselves were creating a creole art based in European traditions yet heavily informed by African traditions. Spoor notes that “There are four interrelated ways the artists show creolized culture as a mode of resistance. First, it disrupted the ‘pure’ European forms of culture; second, it could be kept secret from whites; third, it could call upon supernatural powers; and fourth, whites could not control its development in the hands of African-Haitians” (257). Not only is Haitian culture syncretic, it is also resistant in its mysteriousness and agency. While Spoor captures some themes significant for my thesis, her emphasis is primarily literary, so how this works in the modern art world remains to be carefully considered.

My thesis argues that Haiti’s historical significance and creolized cultural allowed the island nation to serve as an ideal trope of resistance for African American modern artists, who located Haitian culture as outside of the primitivist confines of white modernism. As we will see, this is most evident in their depiction of Haitians as creolized rather than savage. Popular conceptions of Haiti in the United States were largely derogatory and racist, largely stemming from the U.S.’s political and economic Occupation of Haiti between 1915 and 1934 (Dash 3; Renda). African American artists often represented Haiti in their works in a more complicated manner, thereby trying to combat racism back home. My thesis explores three often overlapping themes – the folkloric, the historic, and the spiritual – through which artists represent and utilize Haiti, with each theme debunking dominant stereotypes of Haiti while establishing a cultural interrelatedness among African Americans and Haiti.

A study of the influence of Haiti among African American artists itself informs the unique, longstanding relationship between the Caribbean and U.S. artists. Given the Caribbean’s history of plantation slavery and colonialism, African American artists discovered aesthetic and cultural linkages to the region (Ferris xx). Further, the institution of slavery within the Spanish and French Caribbean was often not nearly as heavy-handed as slavery in the South, and African cultural forms were able to survive and thrive (Spoor xx). Artists looking to go back to their “roots” need not travel to Africa but to the Caribbean, where there was a vibrant creole culture with strong African remnants as well as a population that shared a history of enslavement. In his text exploring African ancestry in African American art, William Ferris comments, “The study of this cultural bridge between the American South and the Caribbean culture, long overdue, will enrich our understanding of black art” (170). My thesis aims to contribute to this study, which today remains entirely undeveloped.

{NEXT PLEASE} Looking beyond the more widely known works of Jacob Lawrence, one theme we encounter is the confluence of the abstract and modern with that of folk or black tradition, as seen in the works of Ellis Wilson. Among Wilson’s most famous works is a painting titled Haitian Funeral Procession (c. 1950s). It represents Wilson’s more refined, crisp abstraction, a style he picked up after his studies in Haiti. The work relies largely on simplified bright shapes (much like the earlier Jacob Lawrence examples), and while the bodies lined up in the foreground rhythmically move the viewers’ eyes calmly to the right, the bodies in the upper background pull the viewers eyes in the opposite direction. {NEXT PLEASE} One of Wilson’s 1955 pieces titled Janvallou depicts a Voudou ceremony out in the forest at night. Under a swath of lights just below the center of the canvas are small human forms in various bright garments, dancing and contorting their bodies in a rhythmically unique manner. Intrigued by the island’s music and dance, Wilson found confidence in a setting where black people were in control. In both paintings, shapes combine to form a rhythmic, pulsating tone that mimics the Haitian dance and music Wilson would have experienced within the scenes he was depicting. While drawing from principles of modernism, Wilson’s use of abstraction seems just as convincingly tied to the folkloric, moving to a Haitian ebb and flow.

Ellis attached great value to his travels to Haiti, commenting in the 1950’s that Haiti “was a black republic in which they [black people] were in charge of everything – I’d never been to a place like that” (Bearden 342). Haiti not only influenced Wilson’s aesthetics, but held a cultural and social significance that shattered the modernist division between abstraction and representation. While Wilson depicts Haitian culture and life in a sympathetic, honest manner (a manner resistant to stereotypes of Haitians), his aesthetic move towards abstraction may have greater implications. Scholar Ann Eden Gibson comments on the misperception among whites and blacks that art from the Harlem Renaissance is understood solely as a “celebration of the African heritage and African American life, not – as required by the developing dictates of modernist painting of the 1940s – as the refinement of a formal dialogue between what is depicted and the manner of depiction that referred to its subjects mainly by structural analogy, not mimesis” (119). In other words, African American artists were often accused of merely representing their life and heritage and being absent from formal debates typical of “mainstream” American and European modernism. But as seen in the case of Wilson and others, African Americans were inserting a social and cultural dialogue into the formal dialogue of modernism, infusing abstraction not merely with direct representation but also with cultural, social, folkloric meaning.

For artists like Ellis Wilson, depicting Haitian life in an honest or sympathetic light itself served as a form of resistance against negative stereotypes. Haiti becomes a more direct symbol of black liberation for artists like Aaron Douglass, whose work we saw a moment ago, and Lois Mailou Jones. These artists insert Haiti amid their oeuvre (or body of work)to incorporate themes of race, African American culture, and African roots. This is what I’m identifying as the historic model of resistance. {NEXT PLEASE} In Mailou Jone’s 1965 painting Parade of the Peasants, the chaotic activities of a Haitian market confront the viewer. Like Wilson, Jones uses modern idioms to express a scene that is identifiably Haitian. In Parade of the Peasants, Mailou Jone’s use of line to define the simple bright red and white shapes of the composition leads the viewer’s eye in a frenzy of directions, creating vibrancy that is well rooted in the market activities.

Mailou Jones discovered Haiti through her Husband Vergniaud Pierre-Noël, a Haitian artist and graphic designer Jones met while taking a class at Columbia University. While at Columbia they attended well known African dancer Asadata Dafora’s dance rehearsals, where Pierre-Noël pointed out to [Jones] the similarities of Haitian dances and drumming to those employed by Dafora’s African troupe. Jones fascination and interest in African culture was also developed in her trips to Paris, where Jones was able to come face to face with African artifacts in museums. Theresa Leininger notes that, “In France [African Americans] learned about other Black peoples by socializing with Africans and West Indians, depting Martinicians and Senegalese, reading Black periodicals, and studying African art. These personal encounters affirmed a sense of shared community and history in a way that the United States could not offer between the World Wars” (21). Unsurprisingly, one can easily situate Mailou Jone’s work within the Negritude movement, which sought a connected black identity in response to French colonial racism. {NEXT PLEASE} Jone’s most famous painting is from her first trip to Paris between 1937 and 1938, titled Les Fetiches. The painting depicts an unusual, dynamic montage of five African masks from different tribes. Scholars have noted that Jones faithfully represents the masks through a “first hand study of African masks and ritualistic objects,” emphasizing the uniqueness of each mask (Perry 123). Richard Powell describes the piece as “post-Cubist and post-primitivist,” suggesting that while Jones borrowed stylistically from modernism her piece worked not to reinforce primitivist notions dominant in modern art (Black Art 79). Instead, in the fashion of Negritude, the piece establishes connections between the masks, which all gaze at the viewer in a seemingly purposeful unison.

After her marriage to Vergniaud Pierre-Noël, Mailou Jones established a second residency in Haiti, visiting the island and drawing great inspiration from its religion and culture. {NEXT PLEASE} Her 1963 painting Veve Voudou III presents a much more dynamic, colorful montage based on symbols from the Haitian religion of Vodun (or Voodoo), including the staff of the serpent deity Damballah to the left and other veve, or religious symbols for the deities. If interpreted within her ouevre, this piece is clearly a proud manifestation of African based religion and culture, which Jones continued to represent as she extended her travels throughout Africa. This painting also utilizes the third theme of socio-religious resistance, or the religious as subversive, a theme that also shows up in the work of Harlan Jackson, to whom we will turn now. {NEXT PLEASE}

Jackson, a devout Methodist, was stunned by Haitian religion when visiting Haiti in the 1940’s. Jackson notes, “It is Satan you feel, Satan who is in command when you see twelve- to sixteen-year-old girls dancing, whirling dust everywhere… It disturbed me to know I was so interested” (115). Interested in the anthropological and spiritual, Jackson’s 1949 painting Mask No. 11 is itself a haunting, Satan-like image. Rick Powell suggests that the mask presents the “Split between a racial pride that was embodied in a ‘tribal’ mask and a desire to assimilate that black identity within the ‘white’ cultural practice of abstract painting” (53). Powell argues that artists deal with this split through embracing both models of the split, or deriving an entirely new space outside of the dialectic (I will argue that all the artists discussed today do both). This “dialectic” of “pride” and “assimilation” in regards to the primitive, the modern, and the abstract easily translates to Jackson’s anxiety about Haitian religion, which is both problematic given his Methodist upbringing yet powerful, engaging, and subversive. As Ann Gibson notes, “Jackson’s use of line in Mask No. 11, as well as subject matter related to Haitian Vodou and his worry about the nature of its spiritual involvement, may remind some readers of the better known Cuban artist Wifredo Lam, whose haunting and knowledgeable abstractions of Santería deities and ritual has received scholarly attention” (115) {NEXT PLEASE}. Like Lam {1950 painting Zambezia Zambezia}, who related the spiritual with notions of postcolonial resistance, Jackson enlivens the mask appropriated in European modernism and provides it with a haunting spirituality.

The religion and culture of Haiti not only allowed artists to visually relate their struggle with that of the history and contemporary reality of Haiti, but also help build what Martinician writer Édouard Glissant identifies as “nonhistory,” or the inability to form a collective history among a diverse, dominated population (62). Reflecting upon the progressive, teleological history imposed on the Caribbean by its colonial and postcolonial imperial counterparts, Glissant notes [and I quote]:

Because the collective memory was too often wiped out, the Caribbean writer must “dig deep” into this memory, following the latent signs that he has picked up in the everyday world. Because the Caribbean consciousness was broken up by sterile barriers, the writer must be able to give expression to all those occasions when these barriers were partially broken. [End quote] (64-5)
For Glissant, the artist and writer are responsible for finding breakages unaccounted for within a linear, hierarchical history imposed upon them; they express “the subterranean convergence of our histories… the site of multiple converging paths” (66). Given the similar histories of forced migration and enslavement, I propose we adapt Glissant’s notion of non-history to the African American artists discussed above. Through the historic, the folkloric, and the spiritual, the artists discussed today enter into a dialogue with Haiti that references each artists’ history, culture, and socio-political reality. Further, the artists were not merely depicting Haiti or using Haiti towards their expressive means but building a relationship that caused many artists to return to the island and continue to explore cultural connections.

In the case of Jacob Lawrence, who never traveled to Haiti, it was the actual history of the island that caused the artist to explore possible subterranean converging paths. Well known for his many narrative painting series often depicting African American history, it is noteworthy that Lawrence’s depiction of the life of Toussaint L’Ouverture and the history of the Haitian Revolution was his first ever historical narrative series. Lawrence became interested in creating the series after seeing W.E.B. DuBois’ play on Toussaint L’Ouverture’s life, titled Haiti. Jacob Lawrence found the history to be very powerful, noting [and I quote at legnth]:

I’ve always been interested in history, but never taught Negro history in the public schools…. Having no Negro history makes the Negro people feel inferior to the rest of the world. I don’t see how a history of the United States can be written honestly without including the Negro. I didn’t do it just as a historical thing, but because I believe these things tie up with the Negro today. We don’t have a physical slavery, but an economic slavery. If these people [the Haitians], who were so much worse off than the people today, could conquer their slavery, we certainly can do the same thing. They had to liberate themselves without any education. Today we can’t go about it in the same way. (39-40).
Echoing Edouard Glissant, Lawrence emphasizes the need for misplaced blacks to construct their history, to educate themselves as well as and in order to liberate themselves. Lawrence clearly saw his art as constructing a public history and further highlighting connections between the African diaspora that U.S. and European history have long neglected.

All of the 41 paintings of the series seem to match with their muddy hues of dark red, blue, white, gray, brown and green. Flat colors are placed alongside one another to form a vibrant array of shapes and pattern. {NEXT PLEASE} Panel 10 of the series, titled The Cruelty of the planters led the slaves to revolt, 1776. These revolts kept cropping up from time to time – finally came to a head in the rebellion, depicts a white master aggressively beating a slave whose arms and legs are tied as he lays face down on the ground. Interestingly, the master’s bright golden cross is reflected in the slave’s bruises, which form a bloody upside-down cross. This is likely a commentary on Christianity and its relation to colonialism and slavery. The viewer’s eye is led towards the right from the master to the beaten slave and finally to the six chained slaves towards the bottom right corner. Those slaves wear gold chains that mimic the gold chains depicted in image one, where the natives of Hispañola (who appear black like slaves rather than tan-hued like mulattoes) are captured and chained by their colonizers. The slaves look down at the ground in a state of melancholy, and help accentuate the composition that moves the viewer’s eyes from the top center of the composition to the lower right. Lawrence uses color and form to create emotive images that represent something beyond mere history and social reality.

As Lawrence comments: “Of all modernist concepts and styles, cubism has been the most influential. Because of its rationalism, its appeal has become more universal. And because cubism seeks basic fundamental truths, it has enabled the artist to go beyond the superficial representation of nature to a more profound and philosophical interpretation of the material world” (Wheat 17). Both simple and complex, cubism provided a lexicon where Lawrence could stretch mere historical representations to allow that history to provide a great humanistic message (not unlike that of Goya in the Disasters of War). Not uncommon to the doctrine of modernism, Lawrence’s use of abstraction suggests its ability to reach a universal appeal; However, Lawrence also used abstraction to a political and social means that seems counterintuitive to his American modernist peers.

{NEXT PLEASE} Perhaps the most famous image from the series is panel 20, titled General Toussaint L’Ouverture, a profile portrait that has now become one of the most widely circulated images of the revolutionary hero. While Toussaint’s right eye looks discerningly upon the viewer, his left eye seems to gaze directly towards the future. The portrait is simple and elegant, presenting the leader with a straightforward dignity that is often captured in historical and biographic accounts. {NEXT PLEASE} Panel 36, titled During the truce Toussaint is deceived and arrested by LeClerc, depicts Toussaint in an entirely different light, with the details of his uniform from panel twenty eliminated. Toussaint has a lost facial expression as he is captured. What is perhaps most telling of the piece is its composition, with four swords edging towards Toussaint as he remains trapped in the center. The lighter green shape towards the upper center creates a haunting illusion of spatial depth that is repeated in the following panel, which depicts Toussaint slanted over the bars of a tiny window in his ominous prison cell of despair. As fellow artist Romare Bearden notes, “Singling out the essence of patterns in everything from blades of grass to leaping flames and marching troops, Lawrence created daring color patterns that gave his work impressive compositional strength” (297).

A careful analysis of the entire series shows that the pieces borrowed ideas of the universality of abstraction while reinterpreting those ideas in a more populist, political manner. Regardless, the series does not seem political in its portrayal of the war, especially since Lawrence honestly depicts accounts of the war. For example, whites are never characterized as solely bad and vice-versa, and are occasionally presented as peers of Toussaint L’Ouverture and the black slaves. {NEXT PLEASE} Lawrence presents us with historically and visually complex arrangements that beg the viewer to contemplate before mindlessly acting – as highlighted in panel twelve, titled Jean François, first black to rebel in Haiti. Toussaint did not believe that the time was right for rebellion, where four slaves run mindlessly through the fields with hauntingly absent facial expressions. The Toussaint L’Ouverture series is political in its relation to Lawrence’s following series, which explore the realities and histories of blacks in America. In a sense, Lawrence depicts the revolution as an informative and soulful source of inspiration that may assist towards liberation. {NEXT PLEASE}Lawrence uses art to establish diasporic connections, and the saga of Haiti is later seen in relation to the saga of Harlem, as in Plate 28 of the Harlem series, You can buy bootleg whiskey for twenty five cents. Like Haiti, there is perhaps hope for Harlem, hope to overcome oppression even if beyond all means imaginable. {NEXT PLEASE} Interestingly, towards the end of his career Lawrence broadened the scope of his subject matter, depicting the horrors of Hiroshima in a disturbingly bright colored manner {as seen in Panels 6 Man with Bird + 7 Boy with Kite}, a sign that his work depicted oppression beyond a black/white racial binary. His work profoundly captures the pangs of reality outside of a specific historic or lived experience, a humanity outside of the confines of the oppressor.

{NEXT PLEASE} In works such as panel 23 of the Toussaint L’Ouverture series, which we saw earlier, Lawrence uses abstraction to create a sense of movement and rhythm repeated in his first panel for The Migration of the Negro Series of 1940-1, titled During the World War there was a great Migration North by Southerners {NEXT PLEASE}. The abstract colors forming bodies that rush past the viewer’s eye suggest a hope within their steadfast movement. The abstraction that helps create this movement is indicative of this hope for liberation, for it allows us to step outside of the often wretched historical details and gets us to view history dynamically. Like the Haitian works of Ellis Wilson and Lois Mailou Jones, abstraction is redefined as resistance, its notion of purity and universalism both challenged and utilized.

In his text on the primitive modernists, Lemke notes:

“It was only in the sphere of the arts that a dialectical process could safely germinate. Instead of dismissing primitivism as racism, it is more instructive to consider its potential in subverting the antagonism between the races. Primitivist modernism opened a space comparable to what Homi Bhabha called the third space of enunciation, an ambiguous space that undermined the opposition that the colonialist enterprise was predicated upon” (Lemke 148-9)


Bhabha’s notion of third space has been borrowed by creolization theory. These studies as well as Suzanne Spoors study help support my argument that Haiti serves as an ideal model for the primitivist modernist project, given that Haiti presented a mysterious, ambiguous and ultimately creole space that African American artists could revise and valorize in non-racist terms. Unlike Africa, Haiti presented a people who overcame the struggle of slavery to become an independent republic among great white empires. Haiti thus serves as a nice parallel for African American artists, who themselves were emphasizing the largely neglected contributions of blacks in the project of American modernism.







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