Designing a New Tradition Loïs Mailou Jones and the Aesthetics of Blackness
(Penn State University Press, 2020)
In 1938, Loïs Mailou Jones wrote in her diary, at the tail end of a sabbatical year spent painting in Paris, “They’re going to discriminate against me when I get back. They’re not going to show my paintings. I need to believe in myself. I need to believe that I am a great artist, or I won’t survive when I go back. I need to know it’s going to be rough.” She was mentally preparing to return to Washington, DC and her teaching position at Howard University. Jones was prolific in Paris, painting 40 canvases within nine months (including one of her best-known works, Les Fétiches ). She did exhibit some of these when she returned home, but her fears were foretelling—things were indeed rough and she was never represented by a gallery, plus only a few DC venues showed Black artists and welcomed Black visitors. The sparse scholarship on Jones has added insult to this injury by leaving her in the margins.
A recently released book by art historian Rebecca VanDiver, Designing a New Tradition: Loïs Mailou Jones and the Aesthetics of Blackness, is the second monograph on Jones, the first being published over 25 years ago. “While Jones was in the middle of the black intellectual scene, she remains on the periphery,” writes VanDiver. “While her work is documented archivally, it remains unstudied. Jones is, on the one hand, ‘in’ but, on the other, still ‘out.’” Because she never permanently lived in New York, Jones hasn’t been included in studies of the Harlem Renaissance. With a career spanning the 1920s through 1990s, Jones kept circling in and around the American art capital—she grew up in Boston and began her teaching career in North Carolina, before ending up at Howard where she taught for almost 50 years. Overseas travel took her to Paris, Haiti, and 11 countries on the African continent. Always on the outskirts of New York, Jones has been overlooked as holding any kind of vanguard position.
VanDiver fleshes out the details of Jones’s biography, using the artist’s meticulous records kept at Howard University and interviews with former students such as artists David Driskell and Akili Ron Anderson. And she reinterprets Jones’s work, arguing that she nimbly laced together American, African American, African, and European artistic traditions—in order to fashion a brand new one. “What would the history of African American art look like if we considered those who are in the middle rather than just the avant-garde or naïve?” VanDiver asks.
The book highlights two visual themes that were unique to Jones: representing Blackness in triplicate, and what VanDiver dubs diasporic grammar. During the 1940s Jones started grouping people and objects in threes, as a visual metaphor for multifaceted African American identity. Les Fétiches, for example, has three overlapping masks and blends two aesthetics—African sculpture and European modernism. Her trinities reflected the nuance of Afrodiasporic identity; masks, people, and picture planes reappeared in her work in trios until the end of Jones’s life.
Later in her career, Jones took up a medium composed of disparate planes pieced together to tell a compound story: collage. Collage is an area of Jones’s work that is still unexplored (and while Romare Bearden is usually credited for promoting collage among Black modernists, VanDiver happily points out that Jones used the medium first). VanDiver connects Jones’s collages to what she calls the artist’s use of diasporic grammar, or a visual lexicon that communicates the diasporic experience of being literate in more than one language, history, and culture. Collages are made up of abrupt dislocations, a metaphor for the Afrodiasporic experience of being disruptively cut from one place and pasted into new surroundings.
Jones started making collages in the early 1960s with a series of mixed media paintings about Haitian Vodou. This series shows a dexterous understanding of both modernist European collages and Vodou rituals. “The significance of Jones’s use of the medium—which began on the diasporic periphery of Port-au-Prince—has been buried within the scholarly literature on African American collage,” writes VanDiver. She adds that Jones’s use of collage “functioned as both an aesthetic choice and a cultural statement.”
VanDiver hopes that the book is a starting point for new scholarship on Jones that more deeply researches her collages, murals, textile designs, and other works that have been passed over in favor of a handful of paintings. She concludes with an admission that her focus on one artist doesn’t quite gel with a contemporary intersectional approach, especially as it might apply to a painter navigating the challenges of both race and gender. “Given the categorical ways in which black visual expression has been stifled, repressed, overlooked, and understudied in the field of art history, I contend that there can never be too many books on black artists,” she writes. “This study claims space for Loïs Mailou Jones and offers a methodology for others interested in moving twentieth-century minority artists from the margins to the middle.”