For much of the past century of Modern art, African-American artists often looked like outliers. Why did pioneering black painters like Boston-native Loïs Mailou Jones continue to work realistically as the thrust of Western art was toward abstraction?
“The thing that describes Modernism more than anything else is revolt,” says Edmond Barry Gaither, director of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Boston and a longtime friend of Jones.
While white Modernists were blasting apart the realism pursued in the West since at least the Renaissance, Gaither says, “The radical departure, the revolt of African-American artists at the beginning of the 20th century was the reclamation of African-Americans as human.”
In the face of a Western tradition that portrayed blacks primarily in demeaning racist caricature, if at all, Gaither says, African American art “was involved in reestablishing the validity of a tradition, not involved with smashing one.” Black artists “really took on this role early of creating a new image.”
Loïs Mailou Jones (1905-1998) is the subject of a one-room career survey at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (465 Huntington Ave., through Oct. 14) organized by MFA curator Elliot Bostwick Davis. She was born in Boston. Her mother ran a beauty parlor and made hats. Her father was a building superintendent who attended night school to become, at age 40, the first African-Americans to graduate from Suffolk Law School.
“She thought of herself always as a Bostonian,” Gaither says. Long after she moved away, she continued to return to Massachusetts annually, he says, often spending time on Martha’s Vineyard, where, while growing up, her family summered on land her grandmother bought with money she earned as a housekeeper and nanny.
After graduating from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Normal School (now Massachusetts College of Art) in 1927, Jones launched a career in textile design. But driving to Martha’s Vineyard one summer, Jones spotted her designs in the windows of interior-decoration shops, but noted that fabrics bore only the name of the patterns, not her name.
“That bothered me because I was doing all this work but not getting any recognition,” she told a biographer. “And I realized I would have to think seriously about changing my profession if I were to be known by name.”
“She was a very warm person and she was very persistent,” Gaither says. “She made up her mind to work on something and she stuck with it.” Such determination was required to get much of anywhere in the face of huge societal hurdles for women and African-Americans to even enter the art world.
Jones applied to teach at the Museum School, but got the message that her options in the white Boston art world were frustratingly limited when the director told her “go South and help your people.” Still she followed his suggestion, briefly teaching art at Palmer Memorial Institute in North Carolina and then at the legendary black college Howard University in Washington, D.C., from 1930 to 1977.
The 1930s saw her drawing and painting realist portraits of African-Americans and illustrating books. This art, Gaither says, was part of the “New Negro” movement’s effort at creating “sympathetic representations of black American experience and reclamation of African heritage.”
Major shifts in Jones’s style were often precipitated by travels. On a year sabbatical from Howard in 1937, she studied at the Académie Julian in Paris. “It was the first time when she was working in a context where race was going to be irrelevant and she was going to be judged on the merit of her work,” Gaither says.
Her 1938 painting “Jeanne, Martiniquais” and her 1943 painting “My Mother’s Hats” show how she pushed her academic realism toward an expressive late Impressionist style—somewhere between Camille Pissarro and the early work of Henri Matisse. This was decades after those styles had been developed and considered radical. “She cast her lot with the conservative style, as many African American artists did, to achieve a certain level of respect,” Gaither says.
In Paris, she met artist Emile Bernard, dancer Josephine Baker, and artist Céline Tabary. And she became acquainted with the international black community via artists from the United States, Africa and the Caribbean. “That also gave her a larger sense of the presence possible for her in the world,” Gaither says.
Back in Washington, she resolved to submit her painting of “Indian Shops, Gay Head, Massachusetts” (not in this show) to the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s annual competition in 1941, even though the museum banned African-American participation. She got around this by having a white friend drop off her painting for her. When her painting won the Robert Woods Bliss Landscape Prize, she preserved her ruse by having the award mailed to her.
Jones’s style shifted again after she married Haitian graphic artist Louis Pierre-Noel in 1953 at age 47. They summered in Haiti from 1954 to ’66 where she was wowed by the vitality of Caribbean art. “The art of Africa is lived in the daily life of the people of Haiti,” she said.
In abstractions like her 1963 painting “Veve Voudou II” and her 1985 painting “Glyphs,” she integrates the imagery she soaked up in Haiti with the Abstract Expressionism of artists like Adolph Gottlieb, a New York painter who’d summered in Gloucester and Provincetown, Massachusetts.
With the rise of black political consciousness in the 1960s, as African-Americans fought for civil rights here and blacks in Africa won independence from European colonial rule, Jones’s work became “a celebration of African color and pattern,” Gaither says.
“Loïs’s own temperament was much more interested in the joy of color and design. She’s not really a protest artist,” Gaither says. Her art is about portraying and embracing African-America and its cultural legacy with accuracy and dignity at a time when just portraying African-Americans was radical. Gaither says, “It’s very much in the spirit of black largeness, in a global way.”
In 1970 she made her first trip to Africa, visiting 11 African nations with a grant from Howard University to document artists there. She returned to the continent in 1972, ’76 and ’77.
Inspired by what she saw and merging it with the flat graphics and image sampling of Pop art, she painted works like 1972’s “Ubi Girl from Tai Region.” Jones layers images of an Ubi girl with her face painted with the X design of a fertility ritual, masks from Zaire, a sculptural profile from the Ivory Coast, and African textile patterns.
“She combines [Pop] with source material from Africa, with African design and African pattern, and out of this she synthesizes a new body of work,” Gaither says. Arriving at her late mature style, “she freely draws from all of them to create something that is a consummate expression of the Diaspora.”
This program aired on February 27, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.