Archibald John Motley, Jr.: Issues Of Race
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Archibald John Motley, Jr.: Issues of Race
Archibald John Motley, Jr. (1891-1981) saw first hand the negative stereotypes placed upon African Americans that had been endured since times of slavery. Therefore, he realized the invocative power of images within a culture. Motley then began his quest to transform Americas stereotypical Negro perspective. In spite of his honorably proclaimed goals, “there is still a hint of [racial] exclusion reflected in his life and his work├É” (Leath, 2). Motleys apparent issues with race are what this paper shall attempt to explore.

The 1925 portrait, The Octoroon Girl, and 1922s Octoroon, are two of several portraits painted of mulatto women by Motley. They possess a dignified air, distinguished dress, and have very attractive European facial features. They are certainly not representative of the African American majority├É–part of the exception not the ├Érule. These paintings serve as documentation of two specific things: Americas history of miscegenation, and obsession with race. Motleys personal fixation with skin color, linked to issues of class and decent, never strayed far from his artwork. Motley shows this in his 1920 Self Portrait, where his “frank and direct gaze, his highlighted forehead, and his ├Éaristocratic emphasized nose,” are evidence of, “his physiognomic association of class with physical features” (Leath, 4). However, as Patton makes clear, Motleys images “of fair-skinned women in middle-class settings denoting affluence, education and cosmopolitanism, were a visual rebuttal to the popular media images of the ├Émammy or the ├Éjezebel of black American women which continued to hold a place in the minds of the majority of Americans” (Patton, 123).

Though it is important to recognize this refutation against the views of the popular majority, one must remember the number of incredibly stereotypical thoughts regarding African Americans that were supported by Motleys work. Motley claimed his purpose was to combat such stereotypes as suspicious, ignorant or shady Negroes, and the Southern cotton-picker slave that was so popular in genre painting of the past, and replace them with representations of the progressive, intelligent, and dignified Negro. However he incorporates and seems to support the “darky” stereotype at times. Take for example his pieces The Liar, 1936, and The Plotters, 1933. Here Motley portrays the lower class, degenerate, un-evolved “darky”. He outfits the subjects of these works with slightly exaggerated faces├É–almost to a point of looking like ├Éblackface makeup. They are suspicious looking drinkers and smokers, cast in dim shadows possessing a “film noir” type quality about them. Very much like an audience trying to decipher an underlying plot, the images compel the viewer to attempt to figure out the heist being planned. These black men are stereotyped much like black men of today would be in the same situation├É–seen as being devious and scheming.

Motley once stated, “There is nothing borrowed, nothing copied, just an unraveling of the Negro soul. So, why should the Negro painter mimic that which the white man is doing, when he has such an enormous colossal field practically all his own; portraying his people, historically, dramatically, hilariously, but honestly, The Negro in Art” (Estes, 1). Though he pushed all African American artists to create work in accordance to African American subject matter, not in the standard set by the white man, Motley once wrote, ” ├ÉGive the [artist] of the Race a chance to express himself in his own individual way, but let him abide by the principles of true art, as our [white] brethren do, and we shall have a great variety of art, great art, and not a monotony of degraded art ” (Leath, legacy 1). Motleys contradictory words evoke a sense of being “in limbo.” It is as if he wants so badly to connect with a part of his own culture├É–one in which he has no real emotional ties, only physical├É–that he begins to question the culture in which he is familiar. This culture just so happens to be that of the white man. Motley seemingly wanted to combine these two cultures, not only within him, but in the outside world as well. He wanted to create a means of understanding.

Receiving the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1929 allowed Motley to further his artistic study in Paris for a year. This trip to Europe not only affected race within his artwork, but within his personal life as well. Europe provided a much less prejudiced atmosphere in regards to Motleys marriage to Edith Granzo, a white German woman. This change of attitude regarding race is reflected heavily in Motleys artwork. Jockey Club 1929, Dans la Rue, Paris 1929, and Blues 1929, are three works from Motleys time in Paris. Each of the three paintings shows an intermingling of race├É–a new aspect to Motleys compositions. Blues 1929, one of Motleys most notable works, is especially representative of this concept. Blues represents the fusion of African and American culture in Paris. Based in a Parisian ├ÉBlack and Tan club├É–the Petite Caf├É”┬ę├É–the clientele consisted of American Negroes, Senegalese, Libyans, Martiniquais, and other French-speaking African and West Indian people (Chicago Historical Society, 2). According to Gilroy, “Motleys dense composition of cabaret patrons, wine bottles, musicians, instruments, and seemingly disembodied arms and legs all add up to a pictorial gumbo of black creativity: a painted space where musical layering and sexual partnering parallel a fractured, cubistic approach to art and representation├É…Blues is bold in its racial and cultural locus for modernism, and assertive in its aesthetic privileging of black performers” (Gilroy, 1). Blues was perhaps a visual expression of dissolving internal racial fixations that Motley was experiencing├É–conscientiously or unconscientiously. Though Motley had not been to Harlem, Blues seemed to evoke the spirit of Harlem, its cabarets, and the essence of the New Negro (Huggins, 260-61).

After returning to the United States from Paris in 1930, Motley began painting scenes of African-American nightlife in the Chicago area known as Bronzeville. Just such a scene can be seen in Motleys 1935 work, Saturday Night. Suggesting influence from European abstract modernism are the flowing contours of the compressed objects and figures, as well as the floor that tilts virtually parallel to the surface of the painting.

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