You know how they say Paris is more beautiful in the rain? Durham is even cooler when smooth and dripping wet. There is something about it. The grittiness turns sleek like water beads on a shiny black car or fine wrought iron grating on a soaked ruddy brick facade. There is something both magical and cozy about Durham in the rain, it does this ‘raindrops on roses’ kind of thing that is irresistible.
After a lunch of otherworldly creamy smoked bluefish and oysters at Fishmongers, I decided to head over to Nasher Museum and finally take in the Archibald Motley exhibit I’d learned about at the downtown library.
Whatever you thought you knew about the Harlem Renaissance, revise it. Revisit it. Try again and then think that over.
This is one of my favorite periods. The blossom of the ‘Negro’s’ contribution to the quilt of American tapestry we call the Arts and Humanities, is a passionate, vivid, thumping, and breathing thing even now. Or even more so now, as it lives on in each one of us in its own unique way. In our family’s oral tradition, music was the centerfold.
Jazz, rhythm, and blues especially took center stage. A lot of young people got this from their grandparents and extended relatives if they took the time, or television and movies if they watched, which is just great. But mine came straight from my Dad. A man who literally stomped at the Savoy, with his ‘New York Citified’ uncle and cousins. (Or more than likely owing to his not being much of a dancer, he observed the pulsating crowds, howling, moving, and “getting religion,” through mellowed and alert eyes much as Archibald Motley did, only to rehash it later in his own realm). “Getting Religion” (wikipedia) NARA
And so, through my excited child’s eyes, head resting in cupped hands, he turned the broad daylight of our school days into the pulsating, sweaty, smoke-filled nights of the Speakeasies and revolving stages where legends were made. I grew up with a knowledge and history, a fire for all things originated from creative depths or made beautiful, that many folks my parent’s age savored in the back of their minds, as something to make one stand up a bit taller in a crowd.
The Renaissance was unquestionably the foothold of our culture in the modern American world.
The exhibit starts with a self-description. Motley himself considered his work as uniquely American. Rightly so, as America was no longer just a name, or just a country, but a huge melting pot. The Chicago South Side, Jazz Age Paris, 1950’s Mexico, and his own background collided and mixed much like the jarring and juxtaposed paints on his canvas.
After this, one is plunged directly into Motley’s Mexican period. First is a poignant painting of oil on petate mat (woven palm traditionally used for sleeping by the working class), portraying the heartbreak of infant mortality among the village poor. This was due at least in part to the existing class hierarchy and lack of adequate medical care of the day. Another Mexican Baby…laments the title, as in one in a slew of unfortunate souls. There are long lines, long faces, drooping shoulders, and disappointed shawls, exaggerated plodding feet, heads bowed in the shame of losing one’s sacred progeny, and flores para los muertos. Only one individual smiles at the observer, a young son probably only aware of being a miniature of his father, with the proud duty of carrying his baby sibling’s flowers for the family. The rest are weighed down with the burden they carry. Because if one of them carries it, they all did… and it ached.
Throughout the exhibit certain words, more pivotal than others in the story, are highlighted and explained. Caliente had to do to more with the fever of his work, than the actual color. It was the intensity of the color, the gyrating of the crowd, the unabashed reality of every individual, clothed or not, with no ‘airbrushing’ just to make someone feel better about existence in that state or place in our society, to his dispassionate mind. Motley’s neighborhood was not Bronzeville, and he had opportunities many of his subjects did not. His was a lifetime study of society at large and the exhibit shows work spanning 40 years.
The curator, Richard J Powell, is the John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies at Duke University. The commentary provides a running thread throughout the exhibit, tying Motley’s personal and professional life in with the pieces on display.
Motley’s works like Hot Rhythm (1961) and Saturday Night (1935) shimmy, shake, and toss bangles, baubles, and beads, as the characters in his story throw down, plot mischief, get together, or go about their day’s work no matter how dissolute it was perceived to be.
His ‘almost obscene’ use of exuberant color and at times grotesque features are at once story and parody. As in the Lahd’ Mah Man’s Leaving Me “trope”. The perfect lines and neat structures in practically subdued (but still fantastical) pastels platform monstrous features that scream to be noticed and beg to be remembered, if not slapping one in the face directly for the affront of bearing witness to such distress.
One piece, Sunday in the Park (1941), is almost entirely teal in overtone. Again, architecturally ‘trained trees’ with well-behaved lines are a set piece for a story of the leaning couple facing the light in the middle, and others in their idyllic pastimes, while a large child nurse is off to the side in the shadows, trudging behind a pram. As noted, many of Archibald Motley’s paintings feature a social outsider looking on the scene, much as the painter himself.
Motley stated that one of his best works was the Octoroon Girl (1925). As he painted all variations of race, with or without comment, he actually portrayed the nation unapologetically as it was, and was becoming. He is known as having stated, “I try to give each one of them character as individuals. And that is hard to do when you have so many figures to do, putting them all together and have them still have their characteristics.” He acknowledged the existence of African American growth as a cultured society, and in doing so drew attention to what people would come to know as the “New Negro”.
The growth of the bourgeois, middle or upper middle class, entrepreneurs, fashionable, genteel people of all shades was the place America originally aspired to be, though it may not have recognized it at inception. The Octoroon Girl, was just one of many multiracial figures in his art. He boldly documented the many nuances of race just as they were. But not just that.
His Portrait of a Lady, (1948) was in actuality art gallery owner Edna Powell Gayle, “the most refined woman he had ever met”, and she also exemplified the “New Woman”, not just the new black woman, but fashionable woman who quietly made her own way, had her own business, or set her own rules, discarded preconceived ideas of who women were supposed to be and created her own standard. The new woman deserved the ‘hat tip’ when passing on the street, because she was a lady of the time, period.
Art from the Heart and Soul
Nearing the end of the exhibit, Motley speaks from the walls, on the ability of Black people to tell their own story in whatever their chosen medium, whether it be music, art, comedy, or the newer realm for Blacks at the time, theater drama. There is “Nothing borrowed, nothing copied, just an unraveling of the Negro soul…” “Who knows the Negro Race, the Negro Soul, the Negro Heart better than himself?” Indeed.
Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist is at the Nasher Museum in Durham, NC until May 11, 2014.
The exhibit is made possible by the Terra Foundation for American Art, the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor, and the Henry Luce Foundation. This is one for the history books. Don’t miss it.
Opinions are my own notes of the experience, not endorsed by any entity or individual.