Maurice Stevens, Associate Professor in the Department of Comparative Studies at the Ohio State University, recently held a course that directly engaged students with our exhibition of Blues for Smoke. He divided the class into groups and we're sharing their responses. Today's entry comes from the Plum Group discussing the work of Jeff Donaldson. For more background on this series, head here.
Jampact and Jelly Tite (For Jamila) (1988) is a mixed media on linen piece by Jeff Donaldson that mashes together geometric shapes and vibrant colors to create the image of a 1920s swing band in concert. It is a moderately sized piece of 38 by 50 inches. It includes a bassist, singer, pianist, and saxophonist. Though each musician is physically different, the shapes composing them create symmetry within the piece. The artwork evokes many emotions ranging from happiness and joy to sensuality and passion. The combination of the media, shapes, and colors gives the viewer the sense that the image is moving audibly and raucously. The group was particularly struck by the colors and shapes combined with the symmetry of the piece. These components employed by the artist gave our group the sense that the piece was a celebration, in that each musician and their race are overwhelmed by blues and purples, masking their physical racial characteristics.
Jeff Donaldson (1932-2004) was an African-American artist born in Arkansas in 1932. Donaldson graduated from the University of Arkansas with a degree in art. About one year after graduation, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. After he completed his military service, he continued to pursue educational endeavors. He earned a master’s degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology and a PhD in African-American art history from Northwestern University in the 1960s. Donaldson was the first person to be awarded a doctorate in this field of study. Throughout his adult life, Donaldson joined several Civil Rights groups aiming for racial equality. He lived “with the objective of using artistic expression, especially visual art, to advocate for civil rights” (Phelps).
Jampact and Jelly Tite (For Jamila) holds a unique place within the portfolio of artwork created by Donaldson. It was meant as homage to Donaldson’s daughter, Jamila. The artwork seems to be a representation of the music itself. Like the jazz music it emulates, the piece contains various forms and subtle contrasts, similarly to jazz improvisation. One of the most striking things about this piece is the way it can appear so perfectly symmetrical, yet contain so many variances and interesting visual features.
There are many ways to dissect the intersectionality represented within this piece. Considering the visual characteristics of the piece as well as the context surrounding Donaldson’s life, the aspect of race became the most intriguing to the group. As the group brainstormed, we thought about several concepts relating to racial representation in the artwork. It was brought up that the geometric shapes seemed to reflect traditional African art. We also noticed that even though the piece is visually surreal, it still manages to reflect the everyday life experiences through the musicians depicted. In other words, it still pulsates with the vibrancy and sensuality of a swinging jazz club, even though the human forms are largely obscured.
One of the things debated by the group was if the people depicted were actually meant to display racial attributes, or, if they were supposed to be seen as “raceless”. This was discussed because the skin tone and other physical features were difficult to see clearly through the splashes of blue and purple. In addition, above the bassist and singer’s heads, there was texture created by small colored circular beads attached to the piece. It was discussed whether this added texture was supposed to represent the hair of these individuals, since it was the only place this texture was present in the piece. If it was supposed to represent hair, this would be an indicator of an African-American racial characteristic. Due to the placement of the beads, it would reflect and afro hairstyle.
As the group’s knowledge of intersectional analysis has grown, we realized that it is much more important to explore the difficult questions raised by this piece, rather than simply projecting our own personal interpretations and opinions regarding the purely aesthetic aspects. This piece is capable of raising questions about how cues of racial identity affect how we interpret artwork, and more broadly, how we experience life on a daily basis. How might the inclusion of clear and distinct racial identity change the feeling of the piece? Would the explicit inclusion of whiteness affect the legitimacy of the jazz club imagery? Even further, would the inclusion of whiteness cause a marginalization African-American (or racially ambiguous) others? How can artists display racial diversity without marginalizing a specific group? These questions do not have “right” answers. However, using these questions as a catalyst to think deeply about our culture and the affect art has on that culture can be beneficial to changing the way an individual experiences the world.
"Jeff Donaldson." Contemporary Art in & Out of Africa. Transatlantic Dialogue, n.d. Web. <http://www.nmafa.si.edu/exhibits/dialogue/donaldI.htm>.
Phelps, Greg A. "Jeffrey Richardson (Jeff) Donaldson (1932–2004)." The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=7484>