Cymraeg

The Art of Afro

Cindy Liz-Ikie

Appraisal

‘Defiance’ Artist: Herbert Ward
‘Defiance’ Artist: Herbert Ward

To what extent did Herbert Ward accurately depict the artistry of afro hairstyles?

The hair texture of individuals of African descent is inarguably characteristically curly. Nowadays, afro hair is widely misunderstood, misrepresented and most profoundly, discriminated against. Afro hair is often wrongly demonised in the workplace, called and looked upon as ‘unprofessional’. Picking apart this false narrative through the medium of art could help to raise the consciousness of the public, that afro hair and its styling is amongst Africans an unspoken form of individual artistic expression, always. Focussed appraisal of a few select pieces by the white British sculptor, Herbert Ward, will help us begin the timely discussion of the depiction of afro hair in artwork and the interaction of such pieces with today’s society.

Underlying the origins of Ward’s pieces is the objectification of Black people. It may not be often that a Black person would take on the challenge of confronting a wildly racist artist’s work in the most objective way she can. In fact, many will not have ever considered the impact of such a work, created by an artist that would freely describe Black people as ‘barbarians’, on a Black person. White privilege undoubtedly provides the visor that blocks out the light of such awareness.

‘The idol maker’: Artist: Herbert Ward
‘The idol maker’: Artist: Herbert Ward

On a pleasantly warm and sunny September afternoon, I was kindly granted access to see “Head – An Aruwimi Type”, “The Idol Maker” and “Defiance” of the National Museum Wales Collection. Two of these pieces were thoughtfully placed in a grand, white, space. The juxtaposition, of the entire collection of various pieces, from a number of artists, in this pristine white chamber with acoustic properties that call on you to sing the highest note from your soprano chamber choir days, specifically from the song “Amazing Grace” is unsettling. Instantly unsettling as the stark juxtaposition, creates a contrast that compels you to look on midnight black, earth-toned, shadowy figures raised up on pillars and embedded in coves of white. What was most likely intended as a space to simply increase the focus of viewers on the pieces and prevent distraction, actually interacts with Ward’s pieces in a very palpable symbolic way. It is an inescapable echo chamber of ‘White Gaze’. ‘White Gaze’ being a phrase, used by legends such as James Baldwin, to simplify a complex pattern of colonial framing and domination of Black Lives by Whiteness. Arguably, this décor is more a reflection of today’s society than of Ward himself, who is revered for having displayed his pieces in exhibitions that contextualised his art with collections of African substance.

Viewing “Head – An Aruwimi Type” (“Head”), a bronze bust on a wooden base, was more like a confrontation than a whimsical experience. I edged cautiously closer. Unsure of the harm that the piece might spontaneously convey through the air. What detail or lack thereof might I recognise that would passively transfer the racist beliefs of the time in which it was created? Would I suddenly be moved to tears as I viewed? I waited, and there was nothing but fascination. Nothing, but fascination. It is striking how reflective this is of Ward’s undeniable captivation with the features of the Black people he met on his ‘adventures’ and that of the British public for whom he created the pieces to understand the differences between themselves and these ‘subordinate types’. Yet, whilst I view, my lived experience as a Black person frees me from the risk of gawking as they did, and I more readily see the craftsmanship.

The bust is certainly one of the most aesthetic pieces of art I have viewed to date. On its smooth bronze surface, an exquisite story of how the curious artist meets a people is portrayed. However, below all that surface-level splendour of a master sculptor, is the work of an artist who short-changed his skill by not ensuring that the piece would withstand the test of time. Ward would have done better had he told his tale of exploration without superimposing the image of the Black model on the original people of the Congo. In this way, the “Head” would have been separated from the Eurocentric lens of beauty and would have held true. Instead, it is true to the false narrative that Black people are a monolith and that the spirit of Africa, can be successfully embodied by any one image of an African.

 ‘Head – An Aruwimi type’ Artist: Herbert Ward
‘Head – An Aruwimi type’ Artist: Herbert Ward

Interestingly, the “Head” depicts a braided hairstyle, with two pronounced braids either side of the head and a braid running across the hairline from one temple to the other. It is, in my opinion, fairly well done. Short of a magnifying glass, it was a pleasure to still see on close inspection that Ward captured the fullness of African hair when compressed in this style. Even if it were unwittingly done, Ward captured the majesty of the afro and its ability to create an aura of supreme dignity. It is bold, defining and framing of the face. It quite literally, crowns the “Head”. Towards the back of the head, the formation of very tight short curls, are depicted as delicate papules. Still, it falls short because the largely linear striated pattern of the hair does not reflect curls. We are cheated out of the spring-like appearance of the afro curl, and the piece fails to create the illusion of such a distinct form, despite the material being so inspiring and evidently capable. In another lifetime perhaps, we might see Ward further his work by exhibiting exceptionally fine craftsmanship. That which would signify the dense network of interlocking twirling strands of hair furthering the dimensions of the overall structure. Unchallenged white gaze led us to this disappointment, this failure to take full advantage of the artistry that is afro.

Similarly, “The Idol Maker” is steeped in white supremacy. ‘Primitive’ is the depiction of the Congo people who engage with art – woodcarving. Entangled with the crystal-clear heroic nudity of “The Idol Maker”, one faces a conundrum. On one hand, very much like the “Head – An Aruwimi Type”, Ward belittles the people of the Congo whilst simultaneously celebrating them. The health of the individual portrayed is unquestionable, with many, if not all muscle groups clearly defined. The face, fraught with focus, to the point that one questions whether or not the squint of “The Idol Maker” is, in fact, focussed, or due to blindness. Does then that apparent blindness refer to the thoughts of white people at the time, who thought of woodcarving by the people of the Congo as an inability to see how one might move away from ‘wild’ wood and onto more sophisticated metals? The rock on which “The Idol Maker” sits is extensively detailed and assessing it for any hint of repetition could consume you, believe me, I know. So, if that abundance of detail and thought can be provoked through this work, how then is it that once again, the hair of this man is glossed over? An appreciation for afro hair is developed through a lifetime of experience with it. The vine-like co-dependence of kinky hair is not inventively represented with patterns of predictability.

‘Defiance’ Artist: Herbert Ward
‘Defiance’ Artist: Herbert Ward

Fierce is ‘Defiance’, despite its underwhelming table-top size. Diminutive, it sadly could be said to suggest the reductive view of whiteness on Black emotion. In my minds’ eye, such a piece is most impactful at life-size and should not even for the purpose of distribution of art, be rendered less than that. Truly this vision is inspired by the stories of the African Giants that came before me. A viewing of the life-sized piece would have given better insight into African culture and heritage. It is said that the piece represents a ‘primitive fighter’ who is clenched with aggression fit for instant, deadly combat. Dr W. H. Holmes is reported to have said: “This remarkable statue depicts the human savage, the primitive man not yet freed from the shadow of the wild.” A frightening abasement of African warriors, a complete lack of artistic appraisal validated because it feeds the narrative of the inhuman African. The spirit of Africa that Ward is said to have attempted to capture is very nicely represented here. In the face of oppression, it rises up with superhuman strength to overcome. Its stance is unchallenged, as we stand before it, gazing. The expression of the face of Africa, communicates a distaste for the offender, without reservations. The hair in this piece, of all the appraised pieces, is in my opinion, is the most accurate.

Ward’s adherence to the accuracy of presenting the afro form in “Defiance”, achieves the beauty that is highly contributory to the aesthetic appeal aimed for in fine art. The hair here is unpredictable, raised in some areas, lower in others. Dense in appearance melded and belonging to its owner. It has defied the artist’s usual approach. I imagine that the severity of the emotion, the potency of the spirit of “Defiance” that Ward worked to portray, took on a life of its own and possessed Ward to abide or be slain. “Defiance” is seemingly the most artistically sound piece, resonating with me strongly. It is complete because it is honest. At last, the art of afro is visited in an elementary way, but visited, nonetheless. Such attention to the character of afro hair is noteworthy for future artists brave enough to take on the challenge of depicting it and doing so in “Defiance” of their own biases.

The Art of Afro

Lock, Twist, Turn.
Turn, Twist, Lock.
Strong, fragility, Fern.
Lock, Twist, Turn.

Deep wave, crown of kings.
High towered dignity.
Defiance of gravity.
Unveiled strength of things.

Silk weave, spiders.
Strike fear, fighter.
Big, Bold, Titan.
The Hair of an African Giant.

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