Thursday, April 26, 2007

A True Portrait

Archibald Motley once said, "It is my earnest desire and ambition to express the American Negro honestly and sincerely, neither to add nor detract, and to bring about a more sincere and brotherly understanding, between me and my white brethren." Saying this, Motley believed that his paintings could influence white viewers to better understand his black heritage. The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s encouraged many African Americans to develop an artistic interest, which later would gain support that long, had been ignored and discouraged due to prejudice. Not only did Motley want to paint the truth surrounding the stereotypes perceived by society, but also he wanted to honestly portray the “negro,” hoping, that whites and blacks would interact more positively than they had before.

As a way to clear the misconceptions that labeled Africans for years, Motley used formal devices in order to represent the dignity and the lives of the African American women and men. One of Motleys works, “Mending Socks,” uses everyday household objects to stress the important morals embedded in his grandmother’s life. Her age, home and the objects observed tells her history, life and the values that she as well as the Creole people value. Motley’s Creole grandmother Emily exemplifies many lives as Motley’s character placement and object complements the overall effect. While Motley intended his works as a way to illuminate the misconceptions regarding African Americans, Dennis Raverty claims otherwise. Despite Motley’s ability to use his techniques as to beautify his work, Raverty feels that meanings and themes are not as effective because of Motley lack of cultural connection.

Seeing the painting for the first time, one sees the main attraction of the work, Emily Motley. Her old age and life experiences clearly show her hardships and tribulations. Baggy lines and the gloomy, yet prideful expression on her face also tells how hard it must have been to live during her time. In addition, a picture of a white woman hangs on the wall over the table. This woman, the grandmother’s mistress, freed Emily Motley giving her the portrait with her emancipation. On the table, a bowl of what appears to be plastic fruit gives the impression that the old woman has inherited some type of wealth. The plastic fruit makes it seem like the woman lives comfortably and does not have to worry about real fruit spoiling. Two worn book on the table, one being a bible, relates to Emily Motley's ability to have an education.

According to an article from the Wilson library, Emily, unlike many other people, had the opportunity to learn. Being taught to read and write with her mistress's children meant a rare privilege for a slave girl. Underneath all of the table objects lies the blue and white tablecloth. Embedded onto the cloth there was a delicately designed American Indian table spread representing her Native American husband.

If one looks closely, one can see a dark medium drawn down the center of Motley’s painting. The dark line down the middle of the wall seems to separate the grandmother’s spiritual part of her life from her everyday chores and habits. Above her head, a crucifix hangs representing her strong religious beliefs, which may have played an important role during her enslavement giving her hope for her freedom. Cloaked in an orange-checkered brooch, Emily appears to have a portrait of a young woman inside of a tiny pin, which happens to be her only daughter. Several mounds of socks on the table with the scissors lying on top of them symbolize Emily Motley's motherly duties and obligations. The plethora of socks on the table seems to say that she does this a lot in order to provide for her family. These icons show the sacred and ritual events important in her life.

While according to Burton Emmett Collection , Motley wanted to get in touch with his people and create a greater understanding, Dennis Raverty argues that Motley does not do a good job connecting with his culture. Instead of including himself when he speaks of African Americans, Raverty claims that Motley detaches himself from his own culture by referring to African Americans not as "us" but "them.” Motley adds: I was trying to get their [black people's] interest in art.” While his intentions of studying their ways were through attendance of daily activities and rituals, Motley failed to include himself and realize his own background. Because he was light, and well educated, he was considered and outsider and not part of his own community; therefore, one may argue that his portrayal of his grandmother was inaccurate. Trying to fit in two worlds, Raverty acclaims that Motley’s artistic expression was driven by his search for his own identity.

As opposed to the realistic image portrayed by Motley the mammy character was created on little truth and larger lies. In the mammy character created by white society during the Jim Crow laws to say that blacks were happy as slaves when it was quite the opposite. The mammy image served the political, social, and economic interests of mainstream white America. Her wide grin as opposed to the melancholic structure of Emily’s joins with laughter, and servitude to support institution of slavery. She had no black friends; the white family was her entire world. Obviously, the mammy caricature was “more myth than accurate portrayal.” Unlike the evident fallacy of mammy, Motley delineates more of a realistic image of someone who experienced slavery.

As proclaimed by Raverty, Motley’s art was only a struggle to come to terms with his "race”. Whether Motley was able to make sense of his heritage or not is a question unknown; however, his works nevertheless seem to show that he either does a good job using his imagination of the Creole people, or Motley actually has a Creole experience to tell about. Either way, his paintings tend to reveal a truth, giving enlightenment to a confused society unaware of the reality of African Americans.

Works Cited:

http://www.ackland.org/art/collection/contemporary/58.1.2801.html

http://vnweb.hwwilsonweb.com/hww/results/results_fulltext_maincontentframe.jhtml;jsessionid=5RJWMTKB1CQILQA3DIMSFF4ADUNGMIV0

http://www.ackland.org/tours/classes/motley.html
http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/mammies/homepage.htm

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