Kuumba


Von Blum

Throughout
the 20th century, African American artists have used their creative powers to
document and celebrate the historical record of their people. In the process,
they have promoted an alternative perspective for younger generations harmed
by stereotypical images of black life pervading American popular culture. For
many decades following the Harlem Renaissance, a major approach to these
objectives has involved genre paintings depicting African Americans in a wide
variety of activities and settings. Cumulatively, these artworks have
effectively countered the racist legacy that has despoiled American history.

An exceptional
descendant of this striking tradition is Los Angeles artist Varnette Honeywood.
A highly versatile artist currently in mid-career, she has produced scores of
vibrant and colorful artworks that reveal the exuberance and creativity of
black life. Her paintings, collages, and prints use visual language to
continue the long story-telling tradition of her people. Like most of her
African American predecessors and contemporaries, she eschews the notion of
“art for art’s sake,” instead opting to produce work that communicates
deeply felt thoughts and ideas to her audiences.

Except for her
college years in Atlanta, Honeywood has been a lifelong resident of Los
Angeles. Her experiences have been similar to those of most African Americans
in this community and elsewhere. Her knowledge of the effects of racism on her
family have combined with more personal encounters with racist attitudes and
practices to influence the fundamental direction of her mature artistic work.
Migrants from Mississippi, her parents often discussed their intense memories
of the Jim Crow environment of the early 20th century. They were also
subjected to racial harassment in Los Angeles when they moved into a mixed
neighborhood. Honeywood’s grandfather too had been victimized by a Klan
cross burning.

 In high
school in the late 1960s, Honeywood and her fellow African American students
were prohibited from wearing “Afros,” then a visible symbol of black power
and resistance. Even more important, she observed the insidious policy of
discouraging minority students from proceeding to higher education, instead
manipulating them to low paying, menial jobs with little or no future
prospects.

At the same
time, high school enabled her to learn about the history of her own people.
Her consciousness about black history catalyzed her strong desire to become a
history teacher, a professional role that would allow her to make major
contributions to her community. Like many young people during that era, she
attended civil rights and other rallies and protest demonstrations. She
discovered that visual art played a powerful role in the broader struggles for
equality and human dignity. This recognition soon merged with her formal
studies. At Spelman College, she took a drawing course, where her talent soon
received recognition and encouragement. Her major influence at Spelman was the
renowned African American artist Kofi Bailey whose Pan-African perspective
infused his own socially conscious figurative art.

Like many
prominent African American artists in that community, Honeywood acknowledges
an immense gratitude to Cecil Ferguson, curator and community activist whose
assistance to black artists has been instrumental both in their personal
careers and in the wider recognition of their artistic tradition and legacy.
Honeywood also received valuable help from well established African American
artists, Ruth Waddy and Samella Lewis.

Following her
graduation from Spelman, Honeywood returned to Los Angeles, where she obtained
her masters degree in education from the University of Southern California.
For five years, she worked at the Joint Educational Project, teaching art to
largely minority students and designing various multicultural arts and crafts
programs with her students. She also taught art at the central Juvenile Hall,
an experience she remembers as extremely difficult. This background furthered
her commitment to young people, fortifying her desire to provide positive
visual images for black children, one of the central premises of her entire
artistic career.

Her visit to
Nigeria in 1977 had a profound effect upon her artistic work. Her African
travels solidified her emotional linkage to her own ancestors and reinforced
her view that African Americans must look to Africa as a source of identity,
pride, and creativity.

From 1978 to
the present, she has collaborated with her sister in creating and sustaining
an art reproduction business based on her own work. Together, they produce and
distribute notecards, posters, and similar products to the public, thereby
ensuring a substantial audience for Honeywood’s artwork.

Honeywood was
also influenced by some of the venerable figures of that tradition, including
Jacob Lawrence, Archibald Motley, William H. Johnson, Romare Bearden,
Elizabeth Catlett, and Charles White. Lawrence’s Migration Series, for
example, reflected her own parents’ experiences, stimulating her own
commitment to memorialize the lives of African American people in Los Angeles
and elsewhere.

Honeywood views
her works as visual documents to create an historical record of African
American suffering and triumphs. For her, this objective reflects her own
identification of the spirit of social consciousness and protest of the 1960s.
A collage from 1973 effectively exemplifies this perspective. “Slavery”
(Figure 1) depicts the tragic origins of African American history in the new
world. Emerging from his forced labor in a Southern cotton field, the black
male at the top right of the composition expresses his intense agony. His
reaction reflects the pain of his people, driven from their ancestral
homelands and brutalized into submission and humiliation for many centuries.

A recurring
theme in Honeywood’s work is the vibrancy of black culture despite the
barriers of racial oppression. Her 1981 watercolor entitled “Club Alabam:
Down at the Dunbar” (Figure 2) combines strong composition, striking color,
and significant historical content. The time frame of the painting dates from
the 1940s, based on her parents’ vivid memories of their own young
adulthood. A visual statement of the black lifestyle of the period, the effort
highlights Central Avenue in Los Angeles, then the center of a thriving
African American community. For Honeywood’s parents and thousands of others,
Central Avenue was the place to congregate, the West Coast counterpart
to the busy streets of New York’s Harlem. As the work reveals, people
strolled the avenue, savoring the multiple delights of food, music, dance, and
human conviviality.

Central Avenue
attracted major black luminaries in all fields. In the background, the artist
depicts the Dunbar Hotel, the legendary stop for black musicians, artists, and
others excluded from the major white hotels in the Jim Crow environment of Los
Angeles in the early 20th century.

Throughout her
career, Honeywood has also used her art to express her strong solidarity with
black women throughout the world. “Virtuous Woman” (Figure 3), a serigraph
from 1988, reflects in several ways the impact of her trip to Africa. The
artist surrounds the image with “Nkyimkyim,” the twisting African symbol
of toughness and adaptability. Drawing on her impressive capacity as a
colorist, she presents the woman as ready and fully able to handle any
adversity and withstand any hardship. Most important, the image speaks
eloquently to young African American women, for whom the dual barriers of
racism and sexism present daunting and persistent daily challenges.

In “Taking
Care of Business” (Figure 4), Honeywood identifies and celebrates the
political role of black women in America. From the abolitionist movements to
the civil rights struggles of the recent past and present, these heroic women
have provided both leadership and organizational skill in the fight for
political and social justice. In this collage, she depicts three women working
hard to get out the vote, to ensure that African Americans are adequately
represented in the electoral contests of the day. Created in 1983, the work
reflected the strong support in African American communities at the time for
Jesse Jackson’s candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president. The
artist’s grandfather, for example, felt immense excitement and gratification
in being able to vote for a black candidate for the nation’s highest office.
“Taking Care of Business” both documents a major historical reality and
encourages other black women to extend the legacy of their socially active
sisters.

Honeywood
augments her artistic mission through her focus on the underrecognized
creative activities of black people generally. “Kuumba” (Figure 5)
appropriates (and incorporates into the work) the Swahili word for creativity
and draws on one of the seven Kwanzaa principles to provide a strongly
positive image of the multiple talents of people of African origin. In this
mixed media effort, Honeywood portrays several figures of impressively
creative accomplishments. She includes various examples of creativity,
including architecture, historical research and communication, photography,
printmaking, sculpture, and painting. Significantly, she highlights people of
varying skin colors, a celebration of the diversity of black people in America
and throughout the world. In “Kuumba,” she provides a detailed and
colorful background of West African fabric and symbols.

In a silkscreen
produced for the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta in 1990, she focuses
on the unique and multifaceted contributions of black people to American arts.
“Generations of Creative Genius” (Figure 6) portrays, from left to right,
a dancer, a writer, a painter, and a musician. Each of these artistic
enterprises has deep roots in African American history. Each figure is attired
in African dress, with symbols from the motherland present to remind viewers
of the inextricable links between Africa and its sons and daughters of the
Diaspora.

In a
provocative acrylic painting from 1990, Honeywood critiques the widely held
attitude among white Americans about African American family dysfunction and
irresponsibility. “Don’t B-Live the Hype” (Figure 7) counters this
destructive stereotype by depicting a young black family man warmly embracing
his three children. Employed and fully committed to authentic family values,
the man exemplifies the loving relationships that people of all ethnic
backgrounds cherish and attempt to establish. Honeywood’s central point is
deliberately unambiguous: African Americans—no less than anyone else-care
deeply about their children, despite the negative and distorted publicity so
pervasively promoted by mainstream communication media.

The very title
of the painting, moreover, conveys a particular message to young African
Americans, especially males. The artist implores them to neither “B” the
hype nor to “Live” the hype of black irresponsibility. Moreover, she
reinforces her affection for her specific subjects through various details in
the work. She calls attention to their own creative capabilities by
highlighting the colorful spray-can art in the background. This highly
imaginative art form, widely disparaged in the media as mere vandalism,
ironically repeats the central theme of the artwork. The young son at the
lower left of the painting pointedly wears an African medallion, reiterating
the artist’s regular identification of Africa as the source of all black
accomplishments, ranging from the arts to the sustenance of family life.

In 1991,
Varnette Honeywood produced a painting that simultaneously acknowledged the
value of her own college education and the continuing vitality of historically
black colleges generally. “The Groundbreaking” (Figure 8) commemorates the
new Camille Cosby Academic Center at Spelman College, a generous gift from
Bill and Camille Cosby that houses the Art Museum, the Women’s Center, and
the Library. Used as the cover for the Spelman Alumni News Magazine,
the work depicts, from left to right, Camille Cosby, Spelman President
Johnnetta Cole, the project architect, the chair of the Board of Trustees, a
Spelman student, and Bill Cosby. Each participant in the ceremony is
justifiably proud of the broader accomplishments of the college in providing
education and opportunity for generations of African American students. That
message has intimate personal significance for the artist, for without her own
experiences at Spelman, she would not have achieved the well deserved
professional artistic recognition she presently enjoys.

For centuries,
the principle of “Kuumba” has enabled African Americans to work diligently
to correct the regrettable misimpressions about their history, their culture,
and their very humanity. Creative orators, political organizers, writers,
artists, scholars, and many others over the years have used their talents to
offer more realistic accounts of the black experience. The visual arts
continue to play a powerful role in this process. Varnette Honeywood has
undertaken the responsibility to extend the tradition of visual social
commentary. Her purposeful and empathetic dedication to the rituals,
traditions, hopes, and frustrations of her people assures her reputation as an
artist of remarkable distinction and visibility.    Z

Paul Von
Blum teaches art and is the author of
Critical Vision
(South End Press). He acknowledges support for this article from the UCLA
Institute of American Cultures and the Center for African American Studies.