Art, Politics & Society

The Négritude Movement: from Césaire to Enwonwu

Founded in the 1930s in Paris, the Négritude Movement illustrates a profound anti-colonial, cultural and political shift. Initiated by a group of Caribbean and African poets and writers, the movement was first and foremost a literary turn to reclaim the value of African culture. Famously associated with Aimé Césaire, Léon Damas and Léopold Sédar Senghor, the movement ultimately expended its horizons to a broad collection of different styles and art supports.

 

“Poverty,illiteracy, exploitation of man by man, social and political racism suffered bythe black or the yellow, forced labor, inequalities, lies, resignation,swindles, prejudices, complacencies, cowardice, failures, crimes committed inthe name of liberty, of equality, of fraternity, that is the theme of this indigenous poetry in French” – Léon Damas, Anthologies (1947).

 

The crucial importance of Black history

As one of its main premises, the Négritude movement was a rallying cry opening global discussions on Black people’s history, identity and position defined on their own terms. Especially, it enquired the impact of colonialism and its results on how the colonized came to view themselves. Black people were denied past,present and future by contemporary western narratives – ultimately highlighting the violence and misconception on Black identity.

 

Aimé Césaire, one of the main founders of the movement, was also the first to coin the term ‘Négritude’ in his poem ‘Cahier d’un retour au pays natal’ (Notebook of a Return to my Native Land). In his work, the author declares: “my negritude is not a stone, its deafness hurled against the clamor of the day […]but takes root in the ardent flesh of the soil”.

Later qualified as ‘simplistic’ by Frantz Fanon, the Négritude movement still embodies an important step to the denunciation of colonialism – especially in a European context slowly opening to the question of race, in opposition to its highly segregationist North American counterpart.

 Négritude movement and Visual Arts

As for their literary colleagues, visual artists inscribed in the Négritude Art movement aimed for avant-garde and transcendent works - ranging from Surrealism to the Harlem Renaissance. To reflect modernity and ultimately transgressing assumptions on Black identity and history, the art movement centered its focus on a novel approach to developing art – not only acknowledging ancient tradition but defining the contemporary Blackness.

Among many great artists such as Wifredo Lam or Ronald Moody, Ben Enwonwu is probably one of the most well-known.

Nigerian sculptor and painter, Enwonwu (1917-1994) was not only an influential African artist of the 20th century but also a significant essay writer centered aroundt he challenges facing African artists. Reclaiming the space for African modern art on the international scene, the artist embodies a postcolonial message raising questions on the existing “intellectual barrier” […] “which makes it extremely difficult for most Africans to be considered qualified to play an important part in the development and preservation of their art". The latter, by combining indigenous traditions with modern modes of representation– the result of his Igbo heritage and British art academic training – produces a visually profound language on African modernism which challenge contemporary expectations on African art as ethnographic and traditional.

His influence reaches further away than his international fame in the 20th century to contemporary artist in Nigeria and across the world today. Putting his mark on history, his work and ultimate message get a particular tenure in the context of global social media activism. By allowing Black artists/activists to rebel against the dominant discourse - much like Césaire in his poetry or Enwonwu in his art - violence against Black bodies, identities and histories are raised to the forefront of our political consciousness.

 

Contributor’s Tips:

AiméCésaire (1939). Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, WesleyanUniversity Press.

Reiland Rabaka (2016). The Negritude Movement, Lexington Books.

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