Since the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade, Africa has played an important role—albeit shifting, contested, and often unseen—in the history of art of the United States. Rebecca VanDiver, senior lecturer in modern and contemporary art history, will present a paper, Routes to Roots: Loïs Mailou Jones’s Engagement with Africa and the African Diaspora, 1938-70, at an October 4-5 symposium at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC. This symposium, American Art in Dialogue with Africa and Its Diaspora, will highlight new research on this transatlantic dialogue, from nineteenth-century portraiture to American modernism, from the Harlem Renaissance to the contemporary art world.
In the early 1980s Loïs Mailou Jones (1905-1998), an African American artist and Howard University art professor, compiled a list of her African-themed paintings, which she titled Africa Series. VanDiver’s paper considers Jones’s encounters with Africa and the African diaspora in the thirty-year period (roughly 1938-70) that is absent from her list. First on that list was Les Fétiches, completed during a Parisian sabbatical. This 1938 painting, now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, has arguably become her signature work.
VanDiver’s analysis of the paintings Jones produced from 1938 to 1970 “not only reveals the marriage of African and African diasporic themes on her canvases, but also her preoccupation with picturing the various faces of the African diaspora.” An investigation into her pedagogy and research agenda underscores how one can view Jones as “a visual interlocutor who was committed to the visualization of the black diaspora—its objects, its peoples, and its traditions,” VanDiver wrote. She also suggests that Jones’s shift to the medium of collage during this period “speaks to larger cultural debates concerning the multi-faceted nature of blackness and Africa’s role within its construction at mid-century.”
Prior to her appointment at Vanderbilt, VanDiver was a pre-doctoral fellow at the University of Virginia’s Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies. Her research centers on articulations of blackness in twentieth century African American art, African American artistic engagements with Africa, and images of Africa in Western art and visual culture.
The symposium is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in partnership with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Part of the Terra Symposia on American Art in a Global Context, it is supported by a generous grant from the Terra Foundation for American Art.
*Loïs Mailou Jones. Les Fétiches, 1938, oil on linen, 25 1/2 x 21 1/4 inches (64.7 x 54.0 cm), Smithsonian American Art Museum.