‘Black Modernisms in the Transatlantic World’

A new book, co-edited by art historian Huey Copeland, examines the conception of modernism and Black artistry and agency and how the transatlantic slave trade enabled the modern world.

Left: Book cover for “Black Modernisms in the Transatlantic World”; right: Huey Copeland.

The term “modern art” often refers to European and American works of the mid-19th through the mid-20th centuries, when artists were moving away from the conventions of realism and experimenting with form and representation, says Huey Copeland, BFC Presidential Associate Professor in the History of Art Department. The concept of modernism, coupled with Black artistry and agency, are at the forefront of the new book, “Black Modernisms in the Transatlantic World,” a volume of illustrated essays co-edited by Copeland and Steven Nelson, dean of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

“Folks are realizing the importance of looking to other voices, other geographies, and other locations, in thinking about the development of modernism, so it’s not solely a Euro-American phenomenon,” Copeland says. “There are a number of different kinds of artists, particularly women artists, queer artists, and artists of color, that are very much engaged in developing these languages and are part of this project. It’s not simply an addition of Black actors to the canon. It’s also questioning the very structures that shape and determine that canon.”

In a Q&A with Penn Today, Copeland discusses art history, Black creativity, and how the transatlantic slave trade fueled the making of the modern world.

What was the impetus for this book?

We wanted to show the structural import of Black abjection, of slavery, in not only the making of the modern world and its economies but also for the metaphysics and the philosophies that inform the making of modern art.

Our book really wants to make an intervention—what’s been less considered is the way that modernism itself is made possible through the labor of enslaved bodies, enslaved flesh. For us, it’s not just simply bringing in other kinds of agents and geographic locations, but it’s trying to understand ‘What are the very preconditions of modernism?’

To understand that we have to think about what makes the development of modernity possible. Black intellectuals have always emphasized that the making of the modern world is made possible through the development of the transatlantic slave trade, which enables the production of a whole new range of goods and commodities in the New World through the labor of enslaved people who are connected to both the continent and to Europe in this triangle of articulation, where we think of the enslaved as captives being taken from Africa to work on plantations in the New World, where they’re producing the raw materials—rice, cotton, sugar—that then become key commodities within this emerging capitalist economy. Often, those raw materials are shipped to Europe where they’re refined, manufactured, and used as trading goods on the African continent for more of those enslaved bodies. This is the triangle of exchange organized around slavery that creates the material wealth and surplus that provides the real underpinning of the development of modern industrial economies.

For us in this project, we wanted to think about how Black artists are putting pressure on our understanding of modernism but also to be attentive to the ways in which modernism itself is haunted by these Black bodies.

How do Black artists participate in this modernism and create their own depictions and interpretations?

To start, you have artists that are conversant with developments in hegemonic Euro-American modernism, and they are taking up those forms and using them for their own ends but with a different set of interests and imperatives in mind.

One great example of this is the work of the artist Loïs Mailou Jones, who, like many African Americans in the late 1920s and ’30s, goes to Paris to pursue artistic training. And in Paris, she encounters, thanks to colonial exploitation and theft, African artifacts used by a number of different cultures for initiation rites, performances, and masquerades. Pablo Picasso in the earlier part of the 20th century encountered these African objects and was so taken by them and their strangeness that he began to incorporate them into his painting. The great example here is his 1907 work ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,’ which is central to the emergence of Cubism and to the institutional narrative of modern art. That picture is important because it underlines the way in which a whole number of modern artists subsequently would look to African sculptural objects, not to understand how they function in their context but as vehicles and models of how form is not tethered to representational fidelity, as it has often been in the Western tradition.

But when Jones is painting these African masks, she’s not mobilizing them, attaching them to sexualized white female bodies as Picasso does in ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.’ Instead, in a work like ‘Les Fétiches’ of 1938, those masks are in a kind of indeterminate, darkened space. They seem to float, free from any support and unmoored from their cultural context. She’s able to use the African mask as a site of formal engagement, like the modernists who preceded her. But, instead of instrumentalizing them to do a particular sexualized work as in ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,’ in which the masks are meant to underline a certain kind of misogyny and discomfort that Picasso himself feels in relationship to these female figures, these ostensible prostitutes, who are further othered by having these African masks as faces, what Jones does is to put these masks in a kind of layered relationship to each other that speaks to their situation in the context of colonial institutions, which is to say that they’ve been untethered from their contexts and now function as these floating signifiers. So, she’s not trying to press them into any kind of service. She’s trying to stick with their deracination, their displacement and abstraction, and to use that as the basis for her own practice. Jones would represent one kind of artist who is very much working in a Euro-American modernist tradition but with the sensibilities of an African American.

For us, it’s about expanding the aperture in terms of who is participating in the modern project but also about rethinking where modernism is unfolding and when, pushing back temporally—to the 18th century and before—in order to open up our understanding of the longue dureé of these practices and the consistent engagement of Black folks in them throughout the modern period.

The book includes a contribution from Simone Leigh, who created ‘Brick House,’ the now-iconic sculpture situated at 34th and Walnut street at the gateway of Penn’s campus. Why did you decide to include an artist along with art historians?

When my co-editor and I were conceptualizing the book, we knew that we wanted to have an artist represented; we wanted to engage a practitioner who was also trying to center Black women’s lives, histories, and experiences in their work.

We couldn’t think of a more exciting figure working in that context today than Simone Leigh, whose sculptural practice is deeply engaged with histories of African architecture, Black women’s cultural traditions and histories—and who addresses her work to an audience of Black women. That modeled the approach that we were trying to build in a scholarly way, to pay homage and heed to the work of Black women artists, not only in terms of how they’re transforming the art world and conversations around race and gender, but also given how prescient Black women have been in diagnosing these problems that we’re trying to think about within the art historical context.

Bronze sculpture of a large bust of a Black woman on Penn’s campus surrounded by autumn leaves
The 16-foot-tall bronze form of “Brick House” by artist Simone Leigh, who contributed to “Black Modernisms.” (Image: Eric Sucar)