Thursday, April 26, 2007

Cultural Reconciliation Through Art

At first glance, an old woman knitting socks in a rocking chair is anything but extraordinary. This is the scene I came across in my visit to the Ackland Art Museum. Unlike much of the 20th century art on display, this painting caught my eye as more than just paint splashed on a canvas. I recognize the talent that all artists possess; however, I am extremely picky about art I like. I really enjoy renaissance artwork and generally dislike more modern art because it seems to require a much more detailed analysis, which is completely arbitrary. I really appreciated the painting “Mending Socks” by the artist Archibald J. Motley, Jr. This painting exemplifies culture and racism in the early 20th century. It appears that Motley painted this still life to demonstrate that African American culture and values were more similar to those of whites than many whites would have believed during that time.

The museums web site describes and analyzes, “Mending Socks” which is a portrayal of Motley’s grandmother, Emily Motley. The painting shows Motley performing her daily duty of mending the family’s socks. The painting’s most significant aspects are the crucifix, the books, and the depiction of Emily Motley. Each item is symbolic of Emily Motley’s culture and life. The books are clearly symbolic of her education. Although many African American women of her age, during that time, would have been illiterate, Emily Motley possessed a formal education and could read. Having that basic education, shows that Motley is more equal than people would believe, to the woman in the painting. The website describes the woman in the painting as Motley’s former mistress. Motley, no doubt, kept the painting of her former mistress on display to remind her of her past as a slave. The crucifix, which hangs on the wall, is symbolic of Motley’s deep religious convictions. Her religious beliefs are also confirmed due to the fact that one of the books on the table is the Bible, according to the museum’s website. These items, possibly more than anything else in the painting, demonstrate the similarities, rather than the differences, between whites and blacks. Like most women, regardless of color, in the south Emily Motley was a devout Christian.

Many of the items in the painting are characteristic of a still life. Just about every object in the painting is an example of still life. The bowl of fruit, the lamp, and the books are several examples of inanimate objects represented in this painting. Also, the socks which the title of the painting refers to are examples of still life. Motley uses this still life technique to convey the meaning of the painting. He intended the painting to show African Americans in a true example. If the painting had not contained any of these objects, the viewers would have very little insight as to who Emily Motley was. By painting his grandmother, a religious and educated woman, with her “defining possessions” Motley is promoting a greater understanding between blacks and white, stressing their similarities over their differences.

Motley chose to paint his grandmother because she definitely did not fit into the “Mammy” or “Jezebel” stereotypes that existed for African American women during the time. The “Mammy” stereotype portrayed African American as a loud, obese, jovial, motherly figure who was often “completely desexualized”. This image also portrayed the women as being happy with the institution of slavery; they were said to have “great love for their white family, but often treated [their] own family with disdain.” Looking at the painting, Emily Motley clearly does not fit into this stereotype. She is by no means overweight, and she does not appear happy in the painting. Her facial expression is definitely not one of happiness because she is not smiling; rather, she has a neutral or even an unhappy facial expression. Furthermore, Emily Motley in no way upholds the “Jezebel” stereotype, which interestingly conflicts with the “Mammy” stereotype. The “Jezebel” stereotype portrayed African American womenas innately promiscuous, even predatory”. Although this portrayal of African American women differed very much so from the more gentle and motherly “Mammy” stereotype, it was still an unfortunate reality many black women were forced to deal with during the early 20th century. It is reasonable to conclude that Emily Motley in no way upholds the “Jezebel” stereotype because of her conservative dress and her religious beliefs. Thus, Emily Motley served a great model for how black women actually were in the 1920s, instead of the racial stereotypes imposed on them by whites.

While I believe that “Mending Socks” was intended to break down racial differences and give white viewers a greater insight into African American culture, others do not believe this is the case. In an art history paper, Holly Spain offers another possible analysis of the painting shows a sharp contrast between the left and the right sides of the painting. On the left side of the painting, the painting of Emily Motley’s former mistress shows the mistress wearing a black dress. The dark color of the dress suggests the evil which surrounded Emily Motley’s past as a slave to the woman in the painting. On the right side of the painting, the door is painted white, a color associated with goodness. This idea of goodness is reinforced with the crucifix hanging on the wall. Perhaps the door and the crucifix are symbolic of a better life for Emily Motley, one where she is free from slavery. Even more interesting is the fact that Motley painted a grey line down the middle of the wall in the painting. This line could be symbolic of the differences between blacks and whites, or, it could represent the segregation between the two that existed during the time. This idea of segregation can be seen in the painting, not only in the grey line, but also in the facial expression of Emily Motley. In the painting Motley chose not to paint his grandmother with a cheerful facial expression; rather, she appears rather sullen and gloomy. One of the most interesting insights Spain offers is the fact that the painting of the mistress is not seen in its entirety. Spain believes that this represents the “slipping away of white control” which will lead to the eventual freedom of African Americans.

According to the gallery’s website, Motley painted “Mending Socks” in order to “express the American Negro honestly and sincerely, neither to add nor detract, and to bring about a more sincere and brotherly understanding, between him and his white brethren.” If this is the case, I cannot imagine that the overall message of the painting is a dark as Spain believes. Rather, if the goal of the painting is to promote understanding, I think that Motley would have wanted to show the similarities between the two cultures, not the differences. Spain seems to conclude that the painting conveys a message of segregation. Although segregation was a very real occurrence during Motley’s time, it does not seem like focusing on this negative would be the best way to promote understanding between blacks and whites during the early 20th century. Instead of stressing segregation, Motley painted his grandmother with her “defining possessions” to demonstrate, to both white and black viewers, a true example of how African Americans lived. The painting of Emily Motley’s former mistress serves to remind viewers of the reality of Emily Motley’s past as a slave.

Pilgrim, David. "Jezebel Stereotype." Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.

October 2000. Ferris State University. 17 Apr 2007

Pilgrim, David. "The Mammy Caricature." Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.

October 2000. Ferris State University. 17 Apr 2007

Spain , Holly. "Blues and Mending Socks: Capturing the Harlem Renaissance." 05

December 1999. 22 Apr 2007

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