Between Harlem and Paris – the early work of Loïs Mailou Jones

words: Laura Bothe

“Why have there been no great women artists?”, asks Linda Nochlin already in 1971. To be taken into consideration for the canon of art history, female artists had to wait until the 1980s when female art historians like Griselda Pollock and Rozsika Parker (1981) or Whitney Chadwick (1985) started to write about them. Today, Artemisia Gentileschi, Maria Sibylla Merian or Hilma af Klint are well known, at least to curators and art lovers around the globe. Feminism helped to change the perspective on their oeuvre and made them visible to a larger audience. They are all three of white, European descent. Since Kimberley Crenshaw’s (1991) seminal article on intersectionality the awareness of women not being a homogeneous group of equally situated individuals has grown. Intersectionality added a decolonial, more divers tone to the feminist discourse. But in the field of art, non-Western female artists are still a rare sight in museums of fine arts. Loïs Mailou Jones as a black women artist is hardly known even though her work was exhibited in Europe and the US already during her lifetime (1905 – 1998). 

In Jones’ early career, the two hotspots for black artists were New York and Paris. In between wars, artists worked on a new perception of cultural diversity in both locations: in New York the Harlem Renaissance sought for an identity and the dignity of black people (Camara 2020) turning against the victimization and the Darwinist thinking of the white majority. In Paris, the (mostly white) avant-garde saw Africanity through “Western eyes” (Schmeisser 2006). Black women like the recently pantheonized Josephine Baker amazed the masses who were intrigued by their exotic and erotic “otherness”. The romanticized prehistoric interest in foreign cultures (Orientalism, Japanism, Africanism) mostly attracted artists and unconventional thinkers. In addition black American artists and intellectuals themselves started to create networks to facilitate and ameliorate their participation in public life (McCaskill and Gebhard 2006). Among artist, but also among writers and publishers networking was key – especially for women to succeed in a man’s world. Be it the association of female teacher at Dunbar High School in Washington or the famous Nardal’s sisters Cercle d’Amis in Paris – women in the interwar period depended on other female or male network facilitators (Edwards 2003). 

Their daughter born in Patterson, New Jersey, Loïs Mailou Jones’ parents moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Jones attended the high school for practical arts from 1919 to 1923. Early, on she had ties to black American intellectuals like Alain Locke who introduced her to the Harlem community. As the Harlem Renaissance ideal was to produce anything but a white art painted black, new forms, themes were demanded by the leading intellectuals. Art was used to interrogate and challenge derogatory and stereotypical representations of African American (Bernier 2008). This new type of genre painting pushed many American artists to take the boat to Europe. But like Henry Ossawa Tanner, the female sculptor Meta Warrick Fuller or Palmer Hayden before her, Loïs Mailou Jones discovers the freedom to live up to her diverse artistical interests only in Paris. From the very beginning of her career Loïs Mailou Jones wore multiple hats: she was a designer, a teacher, and a painter. Her early career is characterized by her acting according to expectations from both black Harlem ideals: Ascent of Ethiopia (1932) still serves scholars as an example for Harlem art par excellence (Bernier 2008). However, in a pluralistic, if not even feminist way, she emancipated herself from traditional Harlem art and opened to a variety of genres and styles. This is particularly be seen in the diverseness of her paintings. From charcoal drawing to oil painting, not to forget the textile design techniques, she shows classical craftsmanship and the command of a variety of media.

While being in Boston the Harlem Renaissance ideals were omnipresent in her paintings (like Ascent of Ethiopia, 1932). Her stay in Paris represents an essential change in her style. On one hand she discovers Africa from a new perspective. Painted in 1937, les fétiches depicts well her evolution. In the catalogue of the Smithsonian Art Museum, where les fétiches is exhibited today the exhibition label states: “the artist’s effort to draw strength and protection from her cultural heritage in the face of prejudice”[1]. Whereas the Harlem Art would seek for a more imminent look into the future, les fetiches features a more backwards turned gaze on Africa’s actual material culture. On the other hand, the appropriation of traditional French subjects and an impressionist style helped her to be exhibited with two paintings at the Salon de Printemps in Paris in 1938.  Jardin du Luxembourg represents open air painting à la Cézanne (Jegede 2009). In Paris, Jones emancipates herself from the Harlem Renaissance.

Her self-portrait (1940) painted at her return to the US gives a good impression on Jones’ self-perception as an artist. Short-haired, she is wearing a coloured red shirt under her blue paint coat. It is the portrait of a modern black woman, Jessica Van Diver underlines (VanDiver 2020). Les pommes vertes, an impressionist painting from her time in Paris in 1938 stands behind her as a symbol of her European success. Western-African objects can be found on the floor behind her relating her work with African artistic traditions, but also with female predecessors and role models in art. Jones stands in the middle of work already created and yet to be finished. She clearly situates herself as black female artists – but one who is neither a genre painter for the Harlem Renaissance nor uniquely a European impressionist. 

Judith Butler wrote years after Jones’ journey to Paris (Butler 1988): 

“That the body is a set of possibilities signifies (a) that its appearance in the world, for perception, is not predetermined by some manner of interior essence, and (b) that its concrete expression in the world must be understood as the taking up and rendering specific of a set of historical possibilities (521).

Lois Mailou Jones did not believe that she was restricted to be a black female artist. She went beyond the conventions by producing black genre paintings, impressionists work and abstract art. However, she must be understood as a child of her time “taking up and rendering” possibilities. By rejecting the binary worldviews of both Parisian avant-garde and Harlem Renaissance and instead combining and negotiating a position in-between both places, Loïs Mailou Jones emancipates herself as an artist. She positions herself in the middle – as a junction of different art currants.

[1] taken from the website of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/les-fetiches-31947) accessed on August 30, 2021.


Bibliography

Bernier, Celeste-Marie. 2008. African American Visual Arts: From Slavery to the Present. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Butler, Judith. 1988. ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory’. Theatre Journal 40 (4): 519. https://doi.org/10.2307/3207893.

Camara, Gamby Diagne. 2020. ‘Faces of Blackness: The Creation of the New Negro and Négritude Movements in Harlem and Paris’. Journal of Black Studies 51 (8): 846–64. https://doi.org/10.1177/0021934720948737.

Chadwick, Whitney. 1985. Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement. London: Thames and Hudson.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. 1991. ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color’. Stanford Law Review 43 (6): 1241. https://doi.org/10.2307/1229039.

Edwards, Brent Hayes. 2003. The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Jegede, Dele. 2009. ‘Loïs Mailou Jones’. In Encyclopedia of African American Artists, 121–24. Artists of the American Mosaic. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.

McCaskill, Barbara, and Caroline Gebhard, eds. 2006. Post-Bellum, Pre-Harlem: African American Literature and Culture, 1877-1919. New York: New York University Press.

Parker, Rozsika, and Griselda Pollock. 1981. Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology. Pandora. London: Routledge & Paul.

Schmeisser, Iris. 2006. Transatlantic Crossings between Paris and New York: Pan-Africanism, Cultural Difference and the Arts in the Interwar Years. American Studies 133. Heidelberg: Winter.

VanDiver, Jessica. 2020. ‘Marking the Middle: Loïs Mailou Jones’s Mid-Century Portrait Practice’. Lecture presented at the The Edgar P. Richardson Lecture Series: Women, Power, and Portraiture, National Portrait Gallery, October 15. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=opBwxo4TDJM.


Illustrations referred to (see IG post)

Jones, Lois Mailou.1932. Ascent of Ethiopia. Oil on Canvas. Milwaukee Art Museum. https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/the-ascent-of-ethiopia/XwHAiPWqQyqi6g?hl=en-GB.

———. 1937. Les Fétiches. Oil on Linnen. Smithsonian American Art Museum. https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/les-fetiches-31947.

———. 1940. Selfportrait. Casein on board. Smithsonian American Art Museum. https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/self-portrait-76331.

———. 1948. Jardin Du Luxemburg. Oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum. https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/jardin-du-luxembourg-31688.


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