Gardens represent a community of sorts. The many allegories and analogies we make to plant life undergird our understanding of language, mathematics, and humanity more broadly. Even when the garden is composed of planters built upon concrete, with weeds siphoning nutrients, and pests attacking progress, constant cloud cover blotting away necessary sunshine, life will continue as long as the roots are sufficiently nourished.
But, sometimes the roots have to nourish themselves. Nitrogen-fixing organisms convert atmospheric nitrous gas into ammonia and other fertilizing chemicals. Dense-rooting fauna holds soil together while breaking up hardened compactions. The essence of the family tree — a cultural tree — is its roots. Tracing them through their grounding history informs the tree itself, its trunk, and all of its leaves.
In this edition of the WIRE, Alula Hunsen explores the intersection of Black art, roots, and lineage in a stunning Museum of Fine Arts exhibit, “Touching Roots.”
Black people have cultivated a distinct political and aesthetic culture, based on literal, spiritual, and cultural replenishment and protection. The words of Alain Locke, a prominent Black theorist and appointed figure in the Harlem Renaissance, foment the opening gallery of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts third-floor exhibit, titled Touching Roots: Black Ancestral Legacies in the Americas. Touching Roots engages Black artistic thinking and explores various Afro-diasporic traditions and touchstones.
Loïs Mailou Jones, Boston-born, raised, and educated, opens the right wall of the exhibit space with a set of three paintings, alternately figurative and abstracted. Ubi Girl from Tai Region references Pende masks underneath its subject. To its left, a birds-eye-view portrayal of Haitian voodoo ritual grounds (Vèvè Vodou II), voodoo itself a relation to blended West and Central African spiritualities.
There are brilliant connections made across the exhibition, including more Bostonian ties. Hale Woodruff, a muralist who studied under Diego Rivera, is represented via Ashanti Image which abstracts Asante monetary weights used in Ghana into figurative symbols. Romare Bearden, considered one of the foremost Black visual artists of the 20th century, has collage work placed aside a characteristically similar strip-woven quilt (itself a product of West African tradition, which Bearden borrowed and transposed to pastiche). Directly across the way from Jones’s aforementioned voodoo work is Tricky Slicky, featuring Haitian-inspired usage of sequins in a tapestry woven by Napoleon Jones-Henderson (Chicagoan-turned-Bostonian and key member of the radical Black arts collective AfriCOBRA). Trunks and branches expose themselves in this gallery, pulling each work into the production of Blackness and a Black gaze.
The explicit politics of such an eastward turn are explored towards the gallery’s natural footpaced end: Pan-Africanism and Black revolutionary armed struggle are represented via a callback to the Universal Negro Improvement Association’s Black Star Line in Radclife Bailey’s Unia, and a tender portrayal of slain revolutionary George Jackson (alongside his instrument of power) from Kofi Bailey. Lifelong Boston resident Allan Crite’s South End setting (Ancestor Figure, Bambara, Mali, Wood) and graphic artist Elizabeth Catlett’s lithographic portrait round out this section with more Pan-African coloration, and references to the continent. While compelling, I’d loved to have seen more here.
While W.E.B. Du Bois may have argued that all Black art is propaganda, potentially revelatory in its perspective and portrayal of Black life, explicitly political pieces are essential to Black art. From Emory Douglas’s newspapericonography to SAMO’s graffitied cultural and political commentary, Wadsworth Jarrell’s warm loud portraiture of Black activists and luminaries, even Elizabeth Catlett’s own Black Panther-inflected graphics — a deeper exploration of the Black polity could enrich this exploration.
The movement which characterizes the final section of Touching Roots (including a representation of Ghanaian ritual dances respecting Yoruba river spirit Osun) blends the showing into Art and Jazz, a neighboring gallery with its own aesthetic arguments.
Art and Jazz’s central conceit is that jazz and the uptake of Black culture birthed capital-m Modernism in the United States. This held my attention as I tried to follow both the thread of the point and the musical connections within this corner show. Records playing over a speaker system accompany the gallery, spanning Jelly Roll Morton through Miles Davis, and are a key intervention. They bleed into the otherwise quiet Touching Roots showing as well, providing some sonic color.
Jazz may have been one of the first appropriations in recent cultural history — Nelson George, famed music critic, notes that its danceability ripened its quick acceptance as ‘white music’ despite its very Black roots; stolen flowers, as it were. Nonetheless, ragtime’s lovechild with improvisation inspired a great many things, from zoot-suited rebellion to products and paintings. Consumer goods attending the F. Scott Fitzgerald-dubbed Jazz Age abound in this gallery: phonographs, radios, club snifters in one case; furs, dresses, and boots in the next. Muralist and printmaker Charles White’s illustrated work on jazz LP covers in a third case, demonstrating the world surrounding Black musical output and the design language springing up to populate it.
Beauford Delaney and Stuart Davis’s paintings bring their own interpretations and abstractions to visualizations of jazz, as does journalist Charmion von Wiegand’s City Rhythm. QR codes embossed onto the plaques of these paintings add yet another dimension to the gallery. Each code leads you to a performance from Boston instrumentalists offering their aural interpretation of the works, drawing the show full circle back into the music. This entire avant-garde — grown from syncopation and swing — is a beautiful collection of symphonic music blended with African polyrhythm, and rooted in energy and liveliness (the etymology of ‘jazz’ traces back to ‘jasm’, slang alluding to virility).
The New Negro, as evinced by Locke, created worlds out of synthesis: reaching back towards Africa to bring her leaves, branches, seeds, our roots, into current conditions and cultivating culture. This tradition has grown into a beautiful rainforest, samples of which are now on view at the MFA until May 21st of 2023.
Alula Hunsen is an MIT alum, currently working as a freelance writer and research assistant. He writes about culture, trends, history, policy, justice, or anything that might irk his ire. Follow his work on Substack.
- Touching Roots Exhibition Overview, Museum of Fine Arts Boston
- Martina Tanga on “Touching Roots: Black Ancestral Legacies in the Americas”, Boston Art Podcast
- ‘Touching roots’ and connecting cultural histories at the MFA, Boston Globe
- Artistic roots explored in MFA’s Art of the America’s reinstallation, Bay State Banner