Curator and scholar Jeffreen M. Hayes refers to the African Kongo cosmology to place the US American black visual culture as that space full of signifiers where the wishes of an entire community have been deposited, a space that—from the visual—stretches and expands to reformulate what we conceive as a future and encourage us to imagine other possibilities of it through self-recognition, meditation and healing.
Black visual culture and its producers create lasting images that transcend time. Very often, the creators, while making in the present time, are making for and in the future. In this sense, Black visual culture is anything but linear and functions instead as a circular continuum. Given that nearly one fourth of first-generation African slaves in the United States were from the Kongo region, the cosmology of Kongo has provided a theoretical framework for approaching Black visual culture that offers a different way of thinking about how Black culture moves through time, specifically in relation to the four stages of the sun: sunrise, noon, sunset, midnight. In African Kongo cosmology, these sun stages are also known as birth, life, death, and afterlife, respectively. Water, kalunga, divides the worlds of the living and the dead. Visually, this circular movement of life is depicted with four circles, which denote each stage, connected by curved arrows that lead to each phase and a cross that also connects to phases that parallel life stages. Additionally, they represent the four cardinal directions: East, North, West, and South.
The cosmogram—the visual manifestation of the Kongo philosophy—maps how life evolves over time. Using this philosophy of a continuum and constant movement, it is possible to understand Black visual culture in the US in a similar way: moving towards a future that also returns back to itself. The producers of the images presented in this essay exist along these lines—always moving, taking various shapes that are circular in nature. They marked a moment by thinking outside of themselves and their communities. Working inside and outside of the present, Augusta Savage, Folayemi Wilson, Tarrell Alvin McCraney, and Barry Jenkins not only imagine a future, but also lead us to a future: a future that is lived today.
In the United States, the early twentieth century proved to be a time and space where Black US Americans (also called Negroes at the time) began fulfilling the dreams of their ancestors, creating spaces and identities of their own and true freedom, while laying a foundation for the next generation. The period of economic boom between the two world wars in which urban centers thrived—a time that has historically been identified with the New Negro Movement because of the inspiration that unfolded in the literary movement that has been condensed in the 1925 anthology 3] of the same name—was one in which Black imaginations arguably became more visual. Instead of solely being objectified and vilified through the white imagination—one that favored grotesque and stereotypical images—the objects became their own subjects in the hands of fine artists, photographers, musicians, and literary artists. From the early twentieth century to the mid-1940s and in the context of the Great Migration, Black self-representation became more focused and expanded by claiming its own identity against systematic racism through artistic and cultural representations that aimed for a communal lifestyle in relation to their African heritage. In this context, the Harlem Renaissance overlapped with the idea of the New Negro and the rebirth and birth of an African American art, a field whose representation Augusta Savage (1892-1962) helped to increase with the sculptures she made between the late 1920s and 1940s.
Savage, a sculptor, educator, and organizer, who worked through the intersections of being Black and a woman, understood early on in her career that she needed to create a future for herself and the next generation while engaging with the past. Her awareness began as a young student teaching art classes to her fellow classmates while she was still a student in West Palm Beach, Florida. After graduating from high school, Savage made a brief stop in Jacksonville, Florida before making New York City her home in 1921. She attended Cooper Union to study sculpture, finishing a four-year program in only three years.
In the summer of 1923, Savage applied for a summer scholarship to attend the Fontainebleau School of Fine Arts in France. She received the scholarship only to have it rescinded because of her identity as a Negro. Savage was one of a hundred women and the only Black woman awarded the scholarship. The committee stated that the white women could not be expected to share ship accommodations with her. During this time, segregation was politically and socially sanctioned, which meant that Black and white people could not and did not share physical space in public places.
The event made national press as an egregious act of racism against a Black woman trying to further her education and skills. Historically, education has been a tool for equality, especially for Black people, and a hurdle to full acceptance as a human being in the United States, one that has been strongly contested by white people. In this instance however, even after proving herself worthy through merit, Savage would not be viewed or treated as equal to the white women who were awarded the same scholarship. This experience encouraged Savage to speak not so much for herself but for the future in a letter to the editor of New York World. She wrote, “I don’t much care for myself because I will get along all right here, but other and better Colored students might wish to apply sometime. This is the first year the school is open and I am the first Colored girl to apply. I don’t like to see them establish a precedent”.
Savage’s words are one of the many acts that informed the visual world she created during the Harlem Renaissance. She molded and smoothed malleable materials—clay, terracotta, plaster—to create portrait busts, full-figured sculptures of various sizes, and an oversized monument for Black people, young and old, in which to see themselves reflected in the present and in the future. Arguably, Savage’s most renowned work to exemplify this was her 1939 New York World’s Fair commission Lift Every Voice and Sing also known as The Harp.
The 16-foot plaster sculpture, placed front and center at the arts pavilion, depicted Black youth as the strings of a harp with the arm of God as the base of the instrument. Inspired by her friend James Weldon Johnson, who co-wrote the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (1899), which is affectionately considered the Black National Anthem, Savage paid homage to him while artistically representing hope and the cultural belief that children are the future. The following lyrics illustrate how Savage’s monumental work of art reflects Johnson’s hymn and the four moments of the sun:
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
Additionally, Savage famously said, “I have created nothing really beautiful, really lasting, but if I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess, then my monument will be in their work”. Though Savage was self-deprecating in this moment, her legacy lies in her sculptures of Black people looking graceful and dignified, and they provide a foundation for contemporary images, specifically the academy-award winning film Moonlight (2016).
Some eighty years after the height of Savage’s art-making career, Black visual culture acquired another groundbreaking work of art from storyteller Tarrell Alvin McCraney and writer-director Barry Jenkins. Moonlight tells the story of a Black boy living in poverty with a drugaddicted mother while struggling with his identity, in terms of his sexuality and masculinity—the two cornerstones of heteropatriarchy—and through them , nationalism. The film delicately unfolds the protagonist Chiron’s story as he begins to come to terms with being gay while trying to uphold societal ideals of Black masculinity—namely, being physically strong, devoid of any emotion that is not anger, and identifying as heterosexual. Chiron’s story is an important one about being who you are and accepting it, no matter how your world responds to you. There are many Chirons in the Black community that need to see themselves in a similar way to that in which Savage’s sculptures of Black people needed to be seen and experienced both in the early twentieth-century and contemporary times. In a society that consistently produces and amplifies an inhumane perception of Black men in the United States, seeing one’s humanity on the screen is liberating, affirming, and healing.
The power in and of the Black imagination is that it exists along a continuum, moving, shifting and shaping Black visual culture. The power in and of the Black imagination is that it invites, creates, and holds space for liberation, celebrating innovation, and reflecting the spectrum of lived experiences.
Intimacy between Black boys and Black men, sexual and non-sexual, rarely enters the visual lexicon, and it is one of Moonlight’s most important themes. The film accomplishes the representation of this theme in a quite similar way to how a sculpture or painting functions: by inviting the viewer into the space of intimate moments to successfully evoke an emotional connection, no matter the viewer’s identity. The story allows this to develop in the masterpiece through the depiction of the life stages of its protagonist and through cinematography. The melding of both connects back to McCraney’s In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the play upon which the screenplay is based, and creates a painterly effect through the use of color. We see this effect in the opening scene when Juan, the fathe figure in Little/Chiron’s life, pulls up to meet one of his dealers in the neighborhood. Juan arrives in a blue car, wearing a patterned blue, green, burgundy, and white polo shirt with a dark blue collar and dark blue trimmed sleeves, a black do-rag, and light-wash blue jeans. In the background, yellow houses and apartment building with green trees frame the scene. The vibrancy of the colors counters the grotesqueness of selling drugs in the hood.
Blue runs through the film and is represented beautifully in one of the most iconic scenes of the film, when Juan teaches Little how to swim in the ocean. As Juan holds Chiron’s body in the ocean, he says, “Give me your head, let your head rest in my hand, relax. I got you, I promise. I’m not going to let you go. Hey man, I got you.” Then, as Chiron is floating, Juan continues “Feel that right there? You’re in the middle of the world, man.” In this brief moment, the viewer experiences the intimacy and the significance of the color blue, as Juan says in other part of the movie, “In moonlight, Black boys look blue…”
This moment between a father figure and his son in the water arguably connects back to the kalunga (water) that divides the living and the dead, connecting the past and the future. This moment is one of several in the early part of the film that foreshadows Chiron’s future as a drug dealer who exhibits tenderness towards those he loves. Moonlight demonstrates the non-linear movement of one’s life while offering a blueprint of intimacy, tenderness, and love, all characteristics present in Folayemi Wilson’s artistic intervention.
Grounded in Black imagination, self-determination, and love, Folayemi Wilson’s Dark Matter: Celestial Objects as Messengers of Love in These Troubled Times serves as an homage to her early influences—musician Alice Coltrane, Black intellectual spaces in New York City, specifically Harlem, the National Memorial African Bookstore, and the Tree of Life bookstore, and Afrofuturism—and acts as a meditative space where visitors may connect to their inner goodness through meditation and healing. Installed at the Hyde Park Art Center, Wilson’s installation was comprised of ceramic vessels, a deconstructed shotgun house, soundscapes made by Joelle Mercedes, and a three-channel video work. Each of the works stands on their own while making the whole.
The gallery space, with painted black walls covered with glitter that evoke being in space and midnight blue painted floors, transports the visitor to another world, one in which the realm of possibility seems closer than they may realize in their daily lives. Wilson’s chosen color palette, low lighting, and flickers of sparkle from the glitter encourage visitors to release any stress in order to be transported to another world. This feeling and act of preservation is not so different from what Savage’s sculptures and Moonlight offer to those experiencing the respective pieces. Her color palette also connects with that of the latter, albeit, not intentionally.
Shiny blue-black and black orbs are suspended from the ceiling over a pile of lava rocks and similar orbs and take on the shape of planets or spaceships. Looking up at the objects, there is a sense of wonder and awe, spurring one to think of travel. It could be time travel, it could be migration, it could be space travel. The orbs elicit movement and this physicality remains with the viewer as they move in and through the gallery. At the same time, it elicits a feeling of stopped-time because of the sheer nature of the installation being presented in an art center, since visiting an art space is representative of the movements of stopping and moving. When one stops long enough, love can enter and we can be one with it as we are with art.
Dark Matter is an artistic manifestation of the other world philosophy in the cosmology of Kongo: the spiritual world, the afterlife. Following, Moonlight is the physical world (the path from birth to dead) and Lift Every Voice and Sing is kalunga, the dividing line between the worlds. These works of art exemplify the ways in which Black imagination conjures up a future that exists in a non-linear fashion. The power in and of the Black imagination is that it exists along a continuum, moving, shifting and shaping Black visual culture. The power in and of the Black imagination is that it invites, creates, and holds space for liberation, celebrating innovation, and reflecting the spectrum of lived experiences. In this power, we can imagine that Black visual culture is always creating a future, whether consciously or unconsciously—a road map that leads back to itself.
Art Historian Robert Farris Thompson wrote about this in Flash of the Spirit and curated an exhibition Four Moments of the Sun. Anthropologist Grey Gundaker has also researched this in material and visual culture.
Negro was a term used to identify people of African descent in the United states from the eighteenth century to the mid-twentieth century.
The name is taken from the anthology The New Negro (1925), edited by Alain Locke, that featured the early work of Harlem Renaissance writers, including the poets Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and Claude McKay and the novelists Rudolph Fisher, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jean Toomer.
The Great Migration was a time in US history when hundreds of thousands of African Americans moved from the southern United States to northern urban centers and the west coast for economic coast for economic opportunities that they did not have access to in the south. This mass exodus began in 1916 and lasted into the 1970s.
Augusta Savage, “Augusta Savage on Negro Ideals”, in New York World, May 20, 1923, [n.p.].
The monument was demolished after the closing of the fair. Though it was not intended to be permanent, there was an unsuccessful campaign to raise money to store it and cast it in bronze. James Weldon Johnson, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” NAACP History: Lift Every Voice and Sing, at:
T.R. Poston, “Augusta Savage,” in Metropolitan Magazine, January, 1935.
Dark Matter: Celestial Objects as Messengers of Love in These Troubled Times was exhibited at the Hyde Park Art Center (Chicago, United States) in Gallery 1 & Jackman Goldwasser Catwalk Gallery from March 31 to July 14, 2019.