Black Panther, the Obama portraits and black iconography

BY David Brown

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

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The images associated with the representation of blacks have varied from specific periods of history: During the transatlantic trade in Africans, which lasted from the middle of the 15th century to the end of the 19th century, blacks were represented as lower creatures, and in cases were not even viewed as a subset of the human race. This representation complemented a white European slave trade narrative and its accompanying establishments of plantation and chattel slavery. Here, blacks were viewed as creatures who were justifiably wrapped in chains and stocks as they were uprooted from their savage lands in far-off Guinea* to work as beasts of burden in the Caribbean, Latin and South America and in the United States.

The iconography of blacks depended on gender — men were portrayed as strong muscular beasts that needed to be tamed and civilised through working on plantations and in pens, and their women bore exaggerated bosoms and backsides in the tradition of Sarah Baartman** and had little use other than to procreate or tend to the needs of white slave masters.

In Jamaica, enslaved blacks were portrayed as a mix of joyful labourers and lazy, or laissez-faire, characters through the works of Isaac Belissario. The writings of Thomas Thistlewood*** in his diaries did little to change that narrative. Images advertising blacks at slave auctions in St Elizabeth, Trelawny (Falmouth) and Kingston also displayed these associated traits of the black African.

The iconography of the 'savage black' had its origins in the slave trade and centuries of political thought that produced the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Men and of the Citizen, and the American Declaration of Independence of 1776, which labelled all men as having certain “inalienable rights” but did little to adjust or change the lot of the enslaved as blacks who were neither seen as human, nor men, nor citizen. Indeed, they were continuously viewed as beasts of burden and as property. That iconography spawned centuries of racism and the acts of atrocities visited upon blacks.

In the 20th century, blacks in the Diaspora, emboldened by events such as the Harlem Renaissance/the New Negro Movement (1920s), Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (founded in the 1920s) and the Black Power Movement (1960s) sought to rewrite and correct the ahistorical representations of the race. Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, for example, created spaces for organisations such as Henrietta Vinton Davis's Black Cross Nurses or the paramilitary Universal African Legion that illustrated blacks as strong, upstanding, disciplined, and progressive in direct opposition to the savage black narrative. Garvey's own representation of self and blacks as leaders is epitomised in images of him as a scholar wearing academic gowns and mortarboards, or in the distinguished feathered caps as president general of the UNIA.

In Black History Month 2018, African Americans, and indeed blacks in the diaspora, were treated to two major developments in the field of black iconography; notably the release of the film Black Panther and the unveiling of two portraits representative of the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama, and First Lady Michelle Obama.

Film director Ryan Coogler, a black American, created a film adaptation of the Marvel comic Black Panther in which the protagonist, T'Challa, returns home to the isolated, technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda to take his place as king. However, when an old enemy reappears on the radar, T'Challa's mettle as king and black panther is tested when he is drawn into a conflict that puts the entire fate of Wakanda and the world at risk. Commenting on the film, Rolling Stone's Peter Travers stated that the film is “for children (and adults) of colour who have longed forever to see a superhero who looks like them, Marvel's first black superhero film is an answered prayer, a landmark adventure and a new film classic”.

Black Panther, though fictional, has shown that the representation of the black self can function positively on multiple platforms. First, the show is garnering momentum to becoming a box office success. Second, it has shown Hollywood that a largely black cast and a black director can drive audiences to cinemas. Third, it has ignited the imagination of blacks in the diaspora who crave a positive and exciting portrayal of people from Africa and of the continent itself. And fourth, it represents a counter to the narrative of backward and savage Guinea.

Also in February 2018 came the public unveiling of the portraits of the Obamas which now form part of the collection of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. The former president was painted by Kehinde Wiley, known for his “depiction of African Americans posed in the style of Old Master paintings, regal, formal and filled with pops of colour”. Wiley depicted the former president sitting casually in a chair, clothed in a suit, with no tie on, looking relaxed with a backdrop of greenery including chyrsanthemums, the official flower of Chicago; jasmine, representative of Hawaii where Barack Obama was born; and even some African blue lilies, indicative of his Kenyan ancestry. It is quite a colourful (pun intended) contrast to the traditional representations of presidents past, such as a stoic and stern-looking Lansdowne portrait of the first President George Washington. But then, by being the first president of African-American ancestry, Obama is the embodiment of the counter-iconography of the white American president. Indeed, the term “black American president” seemed almost oxymoronic prior to Obama's first election in 2008.

Michelle Obama's portrait, done by Amy Sherald, stays true to the latter's tradition of painting people of colour who are also creatures of fashion who “stand upright against backdrops of pastel monochrome”. Speaking about the portrait, Sherald stated that the shapes in the portrait, and specifically on Michelle Obama's dress, reminded her of “Mondrian****, and the diligent quilt-making of the black women artisans of Gee's Bend, Alabama”. Her portrait is at once an ode to the 'Office of First Lady', to Michelle Obama personally as role model and trailblazer, and to the black Americans who kept the intangible culture of their ancestors alive in Alabama.

The film Black Panther and the Obama portraits have given fodder to the ongoing and oft controversial dialogue regarding black iconography. What is unclear is just how effective these will be in adjusting long-held presumptions of blackness by both non-whites and people of African descent.

*Guinea was a colloquial term for the continent of Africa, sometimes meant as a term of derision. In 1663 England commenced using the guinea coin to trade with the African nation of Guinea and early references to the entire African continent list it as 'Guinea'. In Jamaica, the term Guinea is associated with the medicinal plant guinea hen weed Petiveria alliacea that has its origins on the African continent.

**Sarah Baartman was reportedly born in Eastern Cape, South Africa. In 1810, she was taken to England and Ireland to make money through a series of exhibitions. Her physical appearance was the selling point in a show where she was dubbed the Hottentot Venus.

***Thomas Thistlewood was a white British plantation overseer who owned land and enslaved Africans in Jamaica in the 18th century.

****Piet Mondrian, born 1872, was a Dutch painter who is regarded as one of the pioneers of 20th century abstract art.

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