Young “Arti-vist” Inserts the Black Feminine into the Western Aesthetic
Glory Sam-Jolly has been commissioned by English Heritage and profiled by the New York Times because of her exciting works that combine history and protest
I knew near instantly on seeing Glory Sam-Jolly’s work that she was the perfect person to give us an insight into the Black Feminine in contemporary art.
Young, ambitious and immensely talented, her work turns heads for its audacity, placing Black women firmly within the classical European aesthetic. But it is not just the challenge to the European aesthetic that Sam-Jolly provides, it is her challenge to traditional notions of femininity. Her sitters, though draped in the accoutrements of European masculinity, exude a palpable femininity showing, as in the African tradition, that the feminine and the powerful do co-exist.
Catching up with her following the successful installation of her “Dear Archives” series at the graduate show of her alma mater, the University of the Arts London, we delved into the mind of this budding Black female “arti-vist” who is challenging both the contemporary and historical place of the Black female form in the visual arts.
The mindset of an “arti-vist”
That Sam-Jolly has an activist streak is not hard to discern. The (self-penned) biography on her university’s website designates her a ‘feminist’ who, through her work, seeks to reproach ‘both Eurocentric and patriarchal influences in the art history curriculum’.
If that isn’t enough to convince you of her conviction, her Instagram presence should do it. Over three profiles, she transforms seamlessly between artist, curator, art historian, detective, truth-teller and millennial. Add to this a treasure-chest in the form of an online gallery featuring works from history that depict Black sitters, and there can be no doubt that Sam-Jolly is engaged in a multi-layered conversation on the depiction of the Black feminine in Western art.
When asked what the “Black Feminine” meant to her, she was a bit weary at first. The historic denigration of the Black female form is such that any new mashing together of words is ripe to engender apprehension from Black women. But she ultimately sees it as a revolutionary term, carving out perhaps a place for Black women in an aesthetic framework that has traditionally been hostile to them. She has perceived a change in the culture however, citing the increased representation of strong Black female narratives in film over her lifetime as an inspiration for her work.
This desire to depict the strength inherent in the Black female experience, particularly in the diaspora, is seen most powerfully in her portrait of her cousin Bijou. On speaking about her, Sam-Jolly stresses above all her business acumen – she is an architect and fashion designer. For Sam-Jolly, it is important that the narrative behind the aesthetic does not get lost.
The painting stands out because of the confidence the sitter exudes. Her posture is perhaps the most striking element, its relaxed nature suggesting a familiarity and comfort with the opulence that surrounds her. The columns of Greek antiquity, and all they insinuate about the perceived origins of knowledge, act as pillars on which the sitter rests, suggesting the inextricability of Black people from all enlightenment discourses.
But Sam-Jolly is not interested in getting lost in the past. Her integration of the past and the present in her work makes sure of this. She notes that her paintings “are not recreations of white masterpieces of the past; they tell the stories of actual black female business owners and intellectuals of today”. Mobile phones and cars combine with the aristocratic dress of yore, forcing one to contemplate Black economic empowerment as well as the (at times destructive) veneration of material wealth. Black women are a part of this conversation, navigating the modern world and being navigated by it. Like the past portraits of (mostly) men donning similar attire and striking similar poses, Sam-Jolly’s art seeks to emphasise the sitter’s agency in her contemporary world.
“I do not need to re-write Black women into western art because there are so many Black female nobles in European history”– Glory Sam-Jolly
When asked about this meshing of the old and the new, she says it has both an aesthetic and a practical function. She is no antiquarian; she is a clued-up millennial not threatened by the future. The mobile phones and cars that hold visual ground on her canvases alongside greek columns are testaments to who she is, a product of the digital age. On a practical level, she also wants people to know that her work is of the present; she doesn’t want anyone to think they are products of the past because that would be to miss the point. Her work is stimulating because it has never existed before and she wants people to know this.
One may be quick to surmise that she is loath to give the European past any undue credit for sympathetic or empowering portrayals of Black women, but that would be wrong. She is clear that she is not engaging in historical revisionism: “I do not need to re-write Black women into western art,” she says, “because there are so many Black female nobles in European history”. Their stories, she holds, go untold, not because they are not there, but because they are undervalued by prejudiced curatorial and art history cultures.
The continued difficulties faced by Black women in breaking into those professions act to exacerbate the deficiencies – there are not enough advocates of these marginalised voices from the past within the wider art world because of the continued exclusion of marginalised voices of the present within the wider art world. This explains Sam-Jolly’s budding curatorial practice – she is not interested in simply producing art, she wants to direct the conversations around it as well.
The psychological imperative
But the question remains, why is it so important that Black people are represented in this aesthetic? Why is it necessary to use such outmoded aesthetics to convey contemporary Black agency? Is the need to unearth or partake in these histories proof of the continued psychological reliance of Africans on European aesthetics?
Sam-Jolly would reject this. Convinced of the rightful place of the Black feminine in the European aesthetic, she would see as false any notion that Black women are “alien” to this aesthetic, and she would be right. Through no fault of their own, Black women have been an integral part of the European feminine since at least 1500. After all, it is they and their bodies that bore the brunt of white male sexual aggressive, were subjected to the ire and vitriol of the white female gaze, and bred three hundred years of labour in the Americas fuelling the patronage of the visual arts in the great age of European visual culture during the modern era. Thus, it is the psychology that excludes and devalues their visual narratives within European culture that is to be found wanting, not the desire to unearth those narratives or add to them and Sam-Jolly seeks to do.
As noted, the problem is not one of absence – Black women do appear in pre-20th century European art, but these images are undervalued and under investigated. They languish in gallery stores, devoid of display, investigation, and appreciation. Where there are depictions of Black people alongside European sitters, art history keeps them nameless, relegating them to an ambiguous class of non-entities, as if they were drawn from imagination alone. Black people surely sat for these paintings but who were they? And more importantly, why do we still know so little about them? Sam-Jolly’s annoyance is thus with the culture that allows such gaping holes to persist.
Her self-assured yet playful self-portrait, painted during the first round of COVID quarantine not only goes some way to making a dent in this inequity, but also gives us insight into the young woman behind the work. Her juxtaposition of the past and the present is seen best in this image, with the luxury cars in the background giving the image a hip-hop sensibility that places Sam-Jolly’s work within bigger narratives of defiance. A nonchalant expression at once legitimises her place in such a setting, while challenging the rigidity that typifies the expressions of historic sitters within the same aesthetic.
This is also achieved by the inclusion of a Supermalt bottle in her portrait of her cousin Bijou. Though she notes the inclusion of the bottle itself was an experiment, it is not surprising that she chose to paint a drink synonymous with African celebrations. The inclusion of African cultural references in such art is just as important as the depiction of the Black form; it adds a genuineness to the Black experience being portrayed. But Sam-Jolly notes the limitations of this “act of defiance” on this occasion, as Supermalt is not a black-owned company, but for her it is what it represents that matters most.
Related Article: An Artist Shines Light on the Black Aristocracy
Sam-Jolly’s greatest defiance is perhaps in her depictions of Black hair. There is no more politicised aspect of the Black feminine than Black hair. Though it has long been discussed within and outside African communities, the last few years have seen some of the biggest advancements in recognising the depth of discrimination that people of African descent face in navigating the planet. Not only are their skin colour, facial features, and body shape deemed undesirable and even as threats, but their hair is a primary target in the legislating against the African aesthetic. Thankfully, parts of the United States have started to pass laws to recognise hair discrimination and organisations such as the HALO Collective are trying to effect policy-driven change in this area.
In her self-portrait, Sam-Jolly’s hair is the composition’s biggest statement, forming a crown that rivals any cast in metal or embellished with precious stones. Sam-Jolly notes the significant, and deeply personal, nature of what many Black women term their “natural hair journey”, which Sam-Jolly herself started in 2019, saying:“Black hair can represent the level of confidence in one’s identity, or lack thereof…Even I used to deny that I had an afro…In a way, my hair was colonised, and…part of my identity was colonised.”
But Sam-Jolly is quick to point out that here too her work is not as revolutionary as it first appears. In the portraits of Black women from the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe that she has been able to find, they all wear their hair natural. “Perhaps these women were more confident with their identities” she suggests. If so, then not only are artists like Sam-Jolly saving these women of the past from a system that wants them forgotten, but these women are also saving Black women of today from contemporary systems of oppression. This highlights the importance of supporting not just Black artists in their production of new images but also curators and art historians in their unearthing and showcasing of old images.
It is also comforting to see that multitude of Black hair expressions are given due regard in Sam-Jolly’s work. Multiplicity is after all the single greatest demand of Black liberation thought, the right to relief from the single narrative. Though afros, braids and weaves are on display, it is her work depicting sitters with their natural hair that feel most powerful and perhaps go the furthest in denting the inequity she is focused on. In one portrait titled “Her Gracefulness”, the sitter seems endowed with a double crown, one natural and one manmade. Her natural hair simultaneously breaks free from, yet is framed by, the metal and jewels that probably share her African origins.
Such depictions of Black women in full agency and reverence within the European aesthetic brings to mind the work of Kenyan futurist photographer Osborne Macharia. In his “Black to the Future” projects, Macharia challenges, yet leans into, European and masculine power aesthetics. Yet his work is deeply African and deeply female. Through it he challenges European and misogynistic monopolies on depictions of power.
Sam-Jolly channels this energy too in her work, which is both an embrace of and a challenge to the European aesthetic. Her work, like her sitters, seeks ultimately to take its rightful place within the European tradition. Thus, from the very beginning of her career, this young “arti-vist” is working to place the Black feminine at the heart of contemporary Western art discourse. With such convicted artists, Black women have little to fear about the future representation of their narratives in the visual culture of the diaspora.
Cite this article:
Umolu, Apeike. “Young “Arti-vist” Inserts the Black Feminine into the Western Aesthetic”. The Africxn Review, Journal of the African History Project. https://africanhistoryproject.org/ahp/harmonia-rosales/. 2022.
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