Nka: African American Art in the International Arena

Largely unattended to dimensions of African American art history include the ways in which its related practices have existed, more broadly, in the international arena. Examining such histories offers important and nuanced understandings of the perennial tensions that exist between “African American” art and “American” art. There are important histories, going back two centuries or more, of Black artists in America fleeing the racism evidently endemic in the country of their birth for locales and environments seemingly less racially constrained and, consequently, more conducive to artistic freedom. Bluntly put, Black artists were in some ways more likely to be just “artists” when they traveled beyond the United States. During the nineteenth century, artists such as Robert S. Duncanson sought both racial and artistic freedoms by traveling to other parts of the world such as Italy and Britain, though Henry Ossawa Tanner is probably the most well-known Black American artist to take up long-term residence in another country—France. In the mid-twentieth century, artists such as Elizabeth Catlett, Loïs Mailou Jones, and Benjamin Patterson gravitated to countries such as Mexico, Haiti, and Germany, respectively, again, in search of artistic (and on occasion, racial) freedoms. Looking at the individual life histories and art histories of African American artists who ventured abroad or crossed the southern border into Mexico offers us compelling mechanisms for greater understanding of African American art histories within the United States.

…The genesis of this issue of Nka dedicated to African American artists in the international arena lies in two occurrences. The second of these was a panel at the 2021 College Art Association (CAA) conference, organized by Richard Hylton and me, titled African American Art in the International Arena: Critical Perspectives, which emerged out of our shared interests and the ways in which we worked together on the first occurrence, the Routledge Companion to African American Art History, published at the end of 2019. On that occasion, I commissioned Hylton to contribute a text to the Companion’s third section, “Curatorial Histories and Strategies.” Surprisingly, Hylton’s “Status andPresence: African American Art in the InternationalArena” was, to the best of my knowledge, the first time a scholar had more broadly attended to the topic by way of a penetrating critical analysis. That article, more than any other single factor, represents the genesis of this issue of Nka.

Three of the panelists at our 2021 CAA conference session have reworked and embellished their presentations and are now represented in this issue of Nka. The reader might well be struck, not only by the diversity of the texts gathered here but also by overlaps and cross-referencing that is at times very much self-evident. Several texts (Lindsay Twa and Rebecca Wolff) make mention of, or focus on, American artists at FESTAC ’77. Other texts (Richard Hylton and Will Rea) focus attention on acclaimed artists John Biggers and Jacob Lawrence and their respective travels and work in the West African countries of Ghana and Nigeria in the early 1960s. Two texts (John Murphy and Antonia Pocock) move in and out of Germany as a country that played host, under very contrasting circumstances, to Charles White and Benjamin Patterson at different parts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The more we uncover about these histories, the more we realize there is much to learn of the travels, sojourns, and accomplishments of African American artists outside of the United States. As Phoebe Wolfskill demonstrates, it is, for example, through Emma Amos’s time in London that we can learn about and gain insights into her little-known embracing of abstraction. And, in an altogether different part of the globe and a mid-twentieth century moment in time, Claire Ittner affords us enhanced understandings of Eldzier Cortor’s multifaceted practices by considering his time in Haiti and its influence on his practice. Ittner’s article examines the ways in which Cortor’s Abbatoire prints departed from dominant visualizations of Haiti - whether the sanitized version of Haitian folklore presented for tourists or the structural order within Haitian culture that ethnographic insight promised to reveal…

The above extracts are from Eddie Chambers' Introduction "From the Editor", Nka#50 African American Art in the International Arena, 2022: 4-6.