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The Black Aesthetic: Envisioning Blackness in American Graphic Design

This article continues Maurice Woods' Envisioning Blackness in American Graphic Design essays with 'The Black Aesthetics' art movements.

Evolution of the Black Aesthetic (Art movements)

The Black aesthetic evolved from a group initiative to enhance the image of the New Negro. In the mid 1920’s, at the end of the First World War, Blacks were faced with a new sense of hope and promise for the future. Expressions of racial pride encouraged Blacks through their art as a means for discovering and developing a system of African identity in America. As W.E.B. DuBois stated, “the great mission of the New Negro to America and the modern world is the development of art and the appreciation of the beautiful.” The Black dynamic was spawned consciously as a goal for establishing an aesthetic self, existing as a platform for articulating “Négritude,” and for initiating debate about the fate or quality of life for the future of Black existence in American culture.

Harlem Renaissance

The cover of the “Harlem, Mecca of the New Negro” issue. Illustration by Winold Reiss, 1925

The first collective artistic efforts by Blacks were initiated in Harlem during the 1920’s. Although the Black aesthetic can be traced back further than this, it was during the end of World War I that the spirit of African beauty was captured within the New Negro Movement (later termed the Harlem Renaissance). The purpose of this movement was to “identify and articulate a community consciousness rather than overthrow existing institutions.” The group initiative was to be a dynamic “force for making the world aware of the cultural contributions of Black artists in modern art.” The aesthetics in art was a source for generating a sense of equality for Black people in America, giving them a voice amid their oppressors. Black artists, inspired by the heritage of their people, embarked on creative endeavors for establishing social, political, and economic stability within a “New” America. Art was thought of as the true form of expressing Black life and the means for advancing the Negro cause. Alain Locke states “African art, therefore presents the Negro Artist in the New World a challenge to recapture his heritage of creative originality, and to carry it to distinctive new achievement in a vital, new and racially expressive art.” The Harlem Renaissance marked a creative moment in history where an aesthetic of progress and race redefinition evolved. However, the New Negro, under the burden of extreme racial conditions, saw their efforts disintegrate. The Harlem Renaissance, comprised of many different individual and collective efforts, created an outlet for introducing the world to creative endeavors of Blacks, but did very little to question or condemn the efforts of racism. Some critics dismiss the Harlem Renaissance’s efforts altogether, stating that although it created opportunity for expressing Black life, it did nothing to challenge the oppression of Black people and build upon a definable aesthetic. Nonetheless, the Harlem Renaissance is looked upon as the building period of the Black aesthetic and Black culture.

The Black Arts Movement

Artwork by Emory Douglas, Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party

During the late 1960’s and 1970’s, the Black Arts Movement took the Black aesthetic to new heights. Originally started in Harlem in 1965 by LeRoi Jones, the Black Arts Movement, (primarily a literary movement), a commune of Black Arts, Black Power, and Afri-Cobra movements, defined a general Black aesthetic that collectively embraced the notion that the Black aesthetic be rooted within the core of Black life. In Gayle Addison’s edited volume, The Black Aesthetic, it is well asserted that the central component to Black artistic endeavors not be nested within “…aesthetic philosophies or aesthetic history, but in Black History, Black culture, and Black social life.” During the Black Arts Movement, visual communication presented Blacks with the opportunity to embrace their own culture by bringing issues of social, economic, and political conditions to the forefront of American life. Graphic design was used to produce connotations of Blackness–Black as beautiful, creative, militant, and proud. Emory Douglas, artist/designer, and minister of culture for the Black Panther party, viewed revolutionary art as the only means of expressing “the correct picture of our struggle.”

The ideology of this period was one that evoked a dynamic sense of confidence; Black artists believed whether or not whites or Blacks accepted their work, it was still considered beautiful. Groups such as the Afri-Cobra and Black Panther Party used graphic design (above) as a method of propaganda in attempt to educate, inform, and eradicate the system of “racist American domination.” These efforts sought to reveal a visual component to the Black cultural revolution of this period. However, not all work produced by Black artists depicted the struggle. Alma Thomas (below), the first African American artist to have a solo exhibition in the Whitney Museum in New York, created abstract works of art. She was often criticized for her lack of responsiveness to address the cultural hegemony of the Black Nationalist agenda. Despite the often conflicting viewpoints, during the 1960’s and 70’s artists created inspired work that cultivated an eclectic mix of dynamic art and presence for Black people.

The Black Arts Movement provides an interesting model for contemporary design practice today, because it links to a visual form can be used to integrate a system of value, awareness, and empowerment that embodies the philosophies of Black life.

Unfortunately, the Black Arts Movement only lasted for about a decade. The decline of the movement started in 1974 when the Black Power Movement was infiltrated by government programs such as Cointelpro. Disrupted by “external and internal problems, commercialization and capitalist co-option,” the movement faced an uphill battle to stay active. Black capitalism mainstreamed the movement by propagating independent efforts of the most important artists of that period. This resulted in a considerable economic downfall that ultimately made it difficult for the movement to recover.