Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 11, 2023
Kobena Mercer Alain Locke and the Visual Arts Richard D. Cohen Lectures on African & African American Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022. 240 pp.; 48 color ills.; 72 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780300247268)

Alain Locke and the Visual Arts takes a deep critical dive into Alain Locke’s significant contributions to African American and Black diasporic visual culture through critical analysis of his cross-cultural and philosophical writings of the 1930s and 1940s. In his introductory chapter, Mercer establishes Locke as philosophical architect of the Harlem Renaissance and New Negro movement, and as a public intellectual interested in social change in the pluralistic forging of African American identity via cultural pursuits such as art, literature, music, and theater.

Mercer dissects Locke’s intercultural approach to the visual arts, reminding the reader that he was foremost a philosopher and not a trained artist or art historian. Locke’s notions of idiom, style, and theme are examined in ways intended to clarify the seeming contradictions and essentialisms of a “modern Black subjectivity” (109). To do this, Mercer consistently parallels and relates specific texts on art written by Locke with Harlem Renaissance artists and their cultural contributions. The author argues that Locke’s distinctive approach to the intersections of texts and images both reveal and create new forms of Black modernity within the complex dynamics of diaspora.

Mercer opens his first chapter with a critical probe into Locke’s 1925 essay, “Legacy of the Ancestral Arts,” in which the philosopher encouraged African American artists to engage with African art as inspiration for tapping into their rightful heritage. Mercer deconstructs Locke’s discourse to excavate and reveal his “divergent values and worldviews” (68) on art, Blackness, and modernism. He attempts to reframe Locke’s ancestralism within the concept of diaspora to gain new perspectives on early twentieth-century encounters between African American artists and African art. However, Mercer concedes that Locke’s formative essay is full of contradictions and conceptual tensions that befit Black engagements with modernism.

Lockean ancestralism was based on the study and analysis of African tribal artifacts that were inter- and cross-culturally disseminated but received and interpreted differently by European, Euro-American, and Black diasporic artists. Mercer argues that contrary to their treatment by white modernists, African American and other Black diasporic artists regarded decontextualized African artifacts differently by imbuing them with “identity value” (48). To prove his point, the author engages in a lengthy discussion comparing Locke’s treatment of his own collection of African art with that of Albert Barnes, concluding that the latter could not grasp “the cross-cultural dynamics of transvaluation at stake” (50) in African art’s reception. To help visually bolster this point of view, Mercer contrasts some portrait photographs by African American artists with those produced by white artists of subjects contemplating African masks and other artifacts, a comparison intended to highlight the divergent aesthetic motivations of Black and white artists creating work within the lived context of a racist society. 

Related to his discussion of the significance of the tribal mask in African American and Black diasporic visual culture, and to visually unpack ancestralism’s cross-culturalism and its distinction from European and Euro-American strains of primitivism, Mercer highlights and critically examines still life representations containing masks and statuettes by African American artists such as James Lesesne Wells, Lois Mailou Jones, Wilmer Jennings, Frank Dillon, Malvin Gray Johnson, Palmer Hayden, and others. He reads many, though not all, of these works as having “double-voicing strategies” (77) that communicate deeper meanings related to the synthesizing of African, European, and American forms and content into “a triangular field of dynamic interaction” (63).

Perhaps one of the more compelling contributions of Mercer’s volume to Black diasporic art historical studies are his perspectives on the ways in which Locke’s investment in art was shaped by his gay male aesthetic sensibilities, bringing to the fore the critical importance of queer practices and spaces in modernism’s cross-cultural origin. It is with this concluding third chapter, subtitled “Homo Negro, Endlessly New,” where Mercer addresses the relevance and importance of Locke’s homosexuality in fashioning the New Negro.

From the start of this chapter, Mercer lambasts past scholarly attempts to make invisible Locke’s homosexuality and render it irrelevant to his intellectual and personal histories. Despite such maneuvers in forced invisibility at the time, Locke’s homosexuality remains an open secret. Throughout his discussion, Mercer sets out to challenge the “unspoken” that “inevitably becomes unspeakable” and rescue Locke’s homosexuality from its “sub-discursive existence” (153).

In the early pages of Mercer’s probe into the significance of Locke’s homosexuality in relation to his critical temper and the visual arts, the author draws on historian George Chauncey’s seminal work on homosexuality in New York City, underscoring the importance of the urban environment that fostered same-sex social and erotic networks under the adverse conditions of both homophobia and racism. At the same time, Mercer rightfully acknowledges the observation by the literary scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in “The Black Man’s Burden” that the Harlem Renaissance was “as gay as it was black,” (Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993, 233) thereby stressing the period’s interracial and transatlantic intercultural intersections that became an integral part of the formation of both American and European modernism. Mercer selects specific artists and their homoerotically-inflected works that best evince Black/gay convergence and (Afro)modernist identity formation strategies.

In cementing the connection between the discursive and the visual, Mercer homes in on the art of Richmond Barthé, Richard Bruce Nugent, and Carl Van Vechten, all of whom drew from the male nude and manifested homoerotic aesthetic and physical desires in a post-Victorian interracial and intercultural context. Mercer selects aspects of Locke’s biography publicized by the historian, Jeffrey C. Stewart, to read and analyze the “intersectional acts of differencing across black and queer art practice” which ultimately “brings us a richer understanding of the multiple voices that infused interwar modernism with critical dynamism” (9). Not only is Mercer’s approach to the topic an example of making boundaries porous, but it also speaks to what he refers to as the “many voicedness,” or Bahktinian “heteroglossia” that presages an open-endedness and “state of unfinishedness” characterizing modernism (9-10).

Although indebted to biographical contributions on Locke’s homosexuality issued by a handful of contemporary scholars, Mercer attempts a shift away from focusing on Locke’s homosexuality as part of his biography alone and prefers instead to “situate Locke’s queerness primarily in the cultural context of a closeted era” in which gay men and lesbians employed “coded strategies for communicating identity and desire beneath the radar of the heteronormative gaze” (155). Mercer is interested in discerning the confluence of these codes, allowing for homoerotic identification through veiled communication among those in the know and resulting in that “heteroglossia” mentioned above.

Mercer spends some time examining the graphic illustrations for Charles S. Johnson’s 1927 short-lived art and literature publication, Ebony and Topaz: A Collectanea, illustrated by the white American artist, Charles Cullen, whose drawings occasionally depicted androgynous white and black figures inspired by nineteenth-century Decadent aestheticism and the androgynous figurations of the British artist Aubrey Beardsley. Mercer observes that Cullen’s designs marked a period in which homosexuality found ways to come out of the closet and into the public sphere, as coding strategies became a necessity for gay men given the repressive conditions they faced during the period. There were, of course, African American and Black diasporic artists who adopted their own unique strategies of homo-coding, one of them being the African American artist, Richard Bruce Nugent, who also produced graphic illustrations for Ebony and Topaz as well as for the single-issue radical periodical, FIRE!!, in 1925.

From here, Mercer deconstructs and contemplates the queer game plans of Locke and Carl Van Vechten, focusing on their differences and commonalities. He juxtaposes selections of Van Vechten’s homoerotically-inflected interracial photographs with Richmond Barthé’s 1935 sculpture of a popular Senegalese dancer and artist model, Féral Benga, to make the point of a multiplicity that imbued Black male bodies with layered signification. For Mercer, Barthé’s statue is a key work of Afro-modernism due to its integration of classicism and primitivism paralleling Locke’s attempt to amalgamate Afrocentrism and Eurocentrism in New Negro ideology. The combination of a Black artist’s use of classical references coded onto an African body viewed socially and culturally as “primitive,” speaks to the work’s “intercultural hybridity” (190-91). Moreover, Mercer interprets Benga’s body as a “contact zone,” a physical fulcrum point activating a creative and social space around which cultures, races and same-sex desire meet, clash, and grapple with one another, often in the context of highly “asymmetrical relations of power” (191). It was Benga, as body and cultural representative who, as Mercer characterizes it, activated a mode of queer sociability in which “black/gay intersections generated insights into identity and desire under the intercultural conditions of modernity” (159).

Mercer ends his book with a brief discussion of representations of what he refers to as the “‘Newer Negroes’ of the revolutionary 1960s” in which Black male bodies and their “macho performances” continued to be loaded with “homo-coded subtexts” (199). This Mercer locates in the 1970 iconic photographic Portrait of Huey Newton by Stephen Shames, and Barkley Hendricks’s Black male nudes and self-portraits. Mercer uses these visualizations as examples of extensions of 1920s black/gay homo-codedness, interculturality, as well as ambiguities resulting from the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality—exposing the porous boundaries which allowed for social and cultural (ex)change by Locke into post-1960s Afro-modernism while ushering in a refreshing kind of legacy into our contemporary moment.

James Smalls
Professor, Department of Visual Arts, University of Maryland, Baltimore County