The art of African-Americans became a powerful medium for social and self-expression. Visual arts including sculpture carried with it political implications related to colonialism, oppression, and liberation. Along with other forms of creative expression, African-American visual arts particularly flourished during the Harlem Renaissance. Three exemplary pieces of art that represent the character, tone, and tenor of African-American art during the Harlem Renaissance include Meta Warrick Fuller's "Ethiopia Awakening," Palmer Hayden's "Fetiche et Fleurs," and Richmond Barthe's "Feral Benga." Each of these works of art conveys liberation from oppression and a subversion of the dominant culture.
In Meta Warrick Fuller's bronze sculpture "Ethiopia Awakening," a woman embodies two distinct themes: of bondage and of liberation. The lower portion of the figure is rendered as would be an Egyptian mummy: legs and feet fully bound, wrapped tightly in cloth bearing a classical Egyptian palm-like motif. Egypt is the bastion of civilization in ancient Africa; the awakening of a unique black identity among African-Americans depends on drawing connections to the ancient history of black people everywhere. Egypt is particularly important to the black consciousness because it serves as a cultural bridge: inhabited by a group of people as diverse as African-Americans. Yet Egyptian antiquities have been appropriated by the European academic establishment in a type of intellectual colonization. In other words, whites have assumed responsibility for black cultural narratives like those of ancient Egypt.
Moreover, mummification represents death, but it also represents eternal life and rebirth in a splendid afterlife. Fuller could have chosen to render the figure in an Egyptian statuary style without using a form common to mummies. For example, Egyptian statuary often depicts one foot stepping forward on the plane rather than being bound together like a mummy. Therefore, the artist chose the Egyptian symbolism of the mummy purposefully.
The upper half of the statue is completely different from the bottom, representing the "double consciousness" of African-Americans that W.E.B DuBois referred to in his writing. In Fuller's statue, the woman is breaking free from the bonds that hold her down. She does so peacefully and with grace. Furthermore, the woman has completely divested herself of any Egyptian identity. Unlike traditional Egyptian statuary, her arms are not sitting stiff by her sides and she glances to the right in a pose totally unlike the rigid poses of ancient Egyptian art. The woman's hands are unbound, and the drapery surrounding her form flows freely. She also appears sensual, with her hand on her bosom as if caught in mid-gasp. Sensuality is quite the opposite of stiff intellectualism. Fuller celebrates the triumph of the heart over the head.
There are several layers of political subversion in Meta Warrick Fuller's "Ethiopia Awakening." First, she represents liberation from the bondage of centuries of slavery. Second, she represents the liberation of the arts in a culture dominated by rigid European-style intellectualism. Third, Fuller makes a strong political statement against colonialism and imperialism. Patton (1998) points out that the title of the piece and the association with Ethiopia is due to Ethiopia being celebrated as the only country that repelled the European colonialists after the partitioning of Africa. This was a time during which the continent was divided up like a pie, for the European powers to devour, as they will.
Ethiopia represented a triumph over Western hegemony. Moreover, there was a pan-African movement called "Ethiopianism," which was related to a Coptic Biblical prophecy. Ethiopianism was based on a co-option of Christianity so that it could suit African needs and African tastes. Fuller's "Ethiopia Awakening" is African-Americans self-liberation, and reclamation of lost identities.
Palmer Hayden's "Fetiche et Fleurs" is also politically subversive. Rendered entirely in earth tones, the painting turns a typical European-style still life on its head. Hayden juxtaposes "primitive" African statuary with "sophisticated" European fine art. "Fetiche et Fleurs" presents the question of why European art might be held to higher standards than the art of Africa. Hayden also seems to be asking what constitutes "primitive" versus "highbrow" art. Using a French title also enhances the pretense of sophistication that Hayden satirizes. Yet "Fetiche et Fleurs" is not a satirical piece; the artist fuses African folk art with European fine art to prove that African-American art effectively blends multiple traditions in order to become its own thing. Like Fuller's statue, Hayden's painting paved the way for waves of African-American artists since to retain a unique cultural identity while still training with…