Afrofuturism, Aaron Douglas, and W.E.B. Du Bois (1920s-1930s)

artstor_103_41822000904639Study for %22Aspects of Negro Life- An Idyll of the Deep South%22 (1934), tempera on paper, by Aaron DouglasAaron Douglas, Aspects of Negro Life- From Slavery to the Reconstruction, 1934. Harlem Renaissancepicture49-142E3580479301EA0AA

Lanre Bakare writes in The Guardian that “[a] new generation of artists [is] exploring afrofuturism. OutKast and Janelle Monáe take the philosophy to the mainstream, while Flying Lotus and Shabazz Palaces push jazz and hip-hop to their extremes.” He traces its musical lineage as follows:

The ’50s and ’60s were dominated by the free jazz and avant-garde work of Sun Ra and his Arkestra, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Don Cherry, and Alice Coltrane, with some psychedelic input from Jimi Hendrix and Love. The ’70s and ’80s were when George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic and Prince sent funk to outer space and dub innovators such as King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry beamed out cosmic signals from Jamaica. The ’90s saw a renaissance and reimagining of Afrofuturism in hip-hop (OutKast, Kool Keith’s Dr Octagon alias, and RZA), neo-soul (Erykah Badu) and techno (specifically Detroit producers such as Drexciya), with all embracing the philosophy and giving it their own distinctive edge.

If Bakare’s right, things must be looking up. Though I’m by no means an afrofuturist connoisseur, I love Miles Davis, Prince, and Jimi Hendrix. Plus, Flying Lotus’ 2010 record Cosmogramma was great. As far as cinematic afrofuturism is concerned, I’m a longtime fan of John Sayles’ Brother from another Planet (1979).

Bakare devotes most of his article to an examination of music and film, so we may forgive him for neglecting to mention the great afrofuturist art that was made in the first half of the twentieth century. This post might go some way in correcting his omission.

Of all the great figures from that period, the Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas stands apart. Raymond E. Jackson and select others deserve some recognition, but no one approaches Douglas. I’d almost describe it as deco-futurism with a heavy emphasis on African symbolism and history, at least as he understood it. Douglas first began to be noticed for his illustrated covers to W.E.B. Du Bois’ “chronicle of the darker races,” The Crisis. At that time in the mid-’20s, the journal had a discernibly Marxist political bent (in keeping with Du Bois’ own views).

He also did some work for Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life. Later he was commissioned to do murals at a number of clubs and universities in Chicago and New York. These are truly stunning; they use a whole range of colors to achieve a deeply atmosphere effect. In this post you can see some of his work, or read more about his life via Wikipedia.

index (5) 9Aspiration Aaron Douglas Harriet Tubman Mural at Bennett College, Greensboro, North Carolina 1

img038FISK_DOUGLAS_DUO_1_LOMural Study for Cravath Hall, Fisk University, Nashville, TN, 1929 gouache on illustration board 14%22 x 32%22, signed and dated Aaron Douglas, The Founding of Chicago, circa 1933, Gouache on paperboard, 14-3:4 × 12-3:8%22, Spencer Museum of Art, The University of Kansas, ....

2 thoughts on “Afrofuturism, Aaron Douglas, and W.E.B. Du Bois (1920s-1930s)

  1. Pingback: Afrofuturism, Aaron Douglas, and W.E.B. Du Bois (1920s-1930s) | Monique Charles

  2. Pingback: Entrada 2 – Diego Rivera | Eden Green

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s