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Journeying through the Black Atlantic; Tate Liverpool opens its new Afro Modernism show next week. Laura Davis finds out what makes it unique.

Byline: Laura Davis

JAZZ music tapped its way over on beige leather shoes to the reedy tone of the saxophone and the tarry scent of half-smoked cigarettes.

The Blues came more quietly, a melancholy wisdom in its voice.

But black art was the subtlest of all, moving across the Atlantic by stealth, leaving traces of itself in the crude simplicity of a Picasso.

Traditionally hidden from art history but very much in view in 20th century contemporary art, the impact of black cultures from around the Atlantic is the focus of Tate Liverpool's new exhibition - Afro Modern: Journeys Through the Black Atlantic.

"We all know about the influence of black culture on music, like jazz. blues, hip-hip, and so on, but we know much less about the impact on 20th century visual art," says the show's co-curator Peter Gorschlueter, the gallery's head of exhibitions.

"This is the first exhibition really to trace in depth the impact of black culture from around the Atlantic on modern and contemporary art."

The title comes from sociology professor Paul Gilroy's influential book, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, which described the fusion of black cultures with others around the Atlantic.

Displayed chronologically, the show begins by examining the cross-polination between early 20th century avant garde movements in art and African-American, Caribbean and Latin American painters and sculptors.

Picasso's oil on canvas Bust of a Woman (1909) is included in this section, angular shapes depicted in earthy tones a precursor to his well known Cubist style.

Also featured is US artist Man Ray's captivating Noir et Blanche (1926) - the head of an androgenous white woman beside an ebony mask. In colour they are a direct contrast, but there are physical similarities in the curve of their jawlines and pursed lips.

"Often the influence of black culture is just looked at in terms of Primitivism in the work of people like Picasso, Leger and others of the Paris Avant Garde being inspired by traditional African crafts but we are doing something really different," says Gorschlueter.

"We're looking at what happened at the same time at different parts around the Atlantic."

Also key to the subject is that, while the Black Atlantic influenced Western Europe, the exchange of ideas went both ways.

"There were artists from Brazil such as Tarsila do Amaral who came to Paris to study with Leger and then went back to Brazil almost exporting what she had learned and influencing other artists there," explains Gorschlueter.

"And Wifredo Lam, a student of Picasso, had to go back to his home in Cuba when the war started in the 30s.

"Again he brought his experience of modern art in the 20th century back to his home country and fused it with traditional Caribbean culture."

This was not just happening in the salons of Europe, he continues.

"In the 1920s, Paris was a hub for all kinds of culture and there was almost a similar movement happening in New York at the same time, called the Harlem Renaissance, when people from black descent claimed their own culture and actually celebrated it.

"Then there were artists who were actually from black African descent but grew up in the United States, like Aaron Douglas, who's a key artist of the 20th century.

"He never visited Africa but he imagined it in his paintings and brought it together in a very expressionistic way."

With more than 140 art works spanning 10 decades, Afro Modern is part of the Liverpool and the Black Atlantic programme - a collaboration between the city's cultural institutions on a scale not seen before.

Artist Sonia Boyce, whose work is included in the Tate exhibition, is also curating a show for the Bluecoat featuring video installations involving local people.

The Walker is showing Aubrey Williams: Atlantic Fire, a selection of vivid paintings by an challenging artist who is often overlooked. FACT is presenting Promised Lands - a sound art performance by internationallyprofiled artists Edward George and Anna Piva constructed from songs and texts gathered from a multicultural archive.

The International Slavery Museum, Metal and the University of Liverpool are also partners.

AFRO Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic is at Tate from January 29 to April 25.


Paul Colin's Josephine Baker in a Banana Skirt [c] ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2009 Edward Burra's Harlem, 1934, and, below, Man Ray, Noire et Blanche 1926 (reprint 1982) [c] Tate and [c] ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2009, respectively Jacob Lawrence, Street to Mbari, 1964
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Jan 22, 2010
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