Larger Than Life: W.E.B. Du Bois

Who is W.E.B. Du Bois? And how does he connect to us today? These questions are asked and, in various ways, answered by 10 artists from North America and West Africa in Du Bois In Our Time, an exhibition at the University Museum of Contemporary Art in Amherst.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963) was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in the era of post-Civil War Reconstruction; he died in Accra, Ghana, on the eve of the 1963 March on Washington and one year before Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Between these historical bookends, he rises as a towering figure: maverick scholar and sociologist, long-time political activist, pre-eminent civil rights leader, Pan-African philosopher, prolific author and influential editor.

Looming larger than life, Du Bois is no unacknowledged elephant in the room. However, an attempt to embrace the multiple facets of his long, illustrious career suggests the story of the blind men and the elephant. Each blind man touches a distinct body part—leg, tusk, ear, trunk, tail—and so imagines a very different animal. The whole, “true” image emerges only by combining disparate perspectives. The parable in this instance points to a renewed awareness of the wide range of Du Bois’ activities and a heightened appreciation for the artists’ individual angles of research-based interpretation.

Mary Evans, born in Nigeria and living in London, makes a direct personal connection to Du Bois: sharing the same birthday (February 23); being born the year he died (1963); and experiencing (in reverse) migration to/from ancestral West Africa, pushed and pulled across cultures and continents. In her artist statement she notes, “I first made these realisations when I visited his tomb and museum in Accra in 2005 during a visit to Ghana, and ever since have felt a pull towards him and an urge to make these coincidences manifest in some way.”

Evans’ installation fills two walls with life-size brown paper silhouettes in poses that suggest Manet’s “Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe” and Matisse’s playful “Jazz” cutouts. Far from being a scene from Western art history, however, it presents the Castle of Elmina in present-day Ghana—a slave port where African people were imprisoned before being shipped across the Atlantic.

While Evans looks at the tragedy of the African Diaspora, Brendan Fernandez, born in Kenya of Indian heritage, focuses on the utopian aspects of Du Bois’s ancestral roots, particularly his efforts to create an Encyclopedia Africana that described past and present accomplishments of Africans and African-Americans. Part of Fernandez’s work was a performance in which the University Color Guard marched from the campus’ Du Bois Library to the museum, carrying a symbolic version of the Encyclopedia Africana and unfurling flags bearing lines of Fernandez’s poetry; a second part includes an installation of text-bearing flags. Jefferson Pinder (currently teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) also explores issues of identity in a two-channel video loosely based on scenes from “Star of Ethiopia,” Du Bois’ 1913 pageant presenting a 10,000-year history of African peoples.

Radcliffe Bailey offers a more literal view of Du Bois as a philosopher and scholar in a large bronze sculpture referencing Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker. Unlike Rodin’s model, however, Du Bois sits dignified and dapper in his suit and signature bow tie. “I enjoy combining African and African American cultural motifs with modern art,” Bailey explains in his artist statement. “I think Du Bois would approve of Rodin’s Republican Socialist leanings that inspired The Thinker….”

The more pointed politics of Du Bois’ autobiography and his recently de-classified FBI files inspired New York-based artist Ann Messner. Extracts from redacted files evoke today’s data mining while highlighting Du Bois’ political prosecution as an “agent of a foreign government” for his work with the Peace Information Center at age 83. (Even later in life, he went into self-imposed exile in Africa and joined the Communist Party.) Messner says in her artist statement that she was struck by “the demonization of a man who should instead have been celebrated for a lifetime commitment to the advancement of the lives of peoples of African descent, but more importantly [for] how, despite the realities of age, Du Bois persisted in the face of nonsensical opposition to labor for what he believed to be just into his final years.”

Du Bois as advocate, author and educator—Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (Kids of Survival) also assume these roles with sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students at Springfield’s Renaissance School in a project centered on Du Bois’ essays in Darkwater. Students read the prose poem “Credo”, then wrote and illustrated their own personal creeds. “Soon we are literally baptizing pages rent from a first edition of Darkwater deeply embossed in old letterpress and golden with 93 years of age,” Rollins writes in his artist statement. “One by one, each young artist dips a page they have personally selected in a pool of furnace black ink laced with gold pigment.”

Industrial furnaces, still belching or abandoned, and the accompanying toxic dumps and environmental decay are a central theme in LaToya Ruby Frazier’s aerial photographs. Born and raised in Braddock, Penn., in a region built up and then degraded by steel mills and dying industries, Frazier documents the current environmental crises along the Monongahela River, juxtaposing those accounts with autobiographical elements. Brightly backlit, the images resonate with a prescient speech Du Bois delivered in 1930 that described the Housatonic River of his native Massachusetts as “a sewer, a drain, a place for throwing waste.”

Additional works by Mickalene Thomas, Julie Mehretu and Carrie Mae Weems prompt another question: Where is Du Bois? Weems reaches far afield to name a flower in honor of W.E.B Du Bois—a white peony with an intense yellow center—and, working with landscape architect Walter Hood, she proposes planting these peonies in a memorial garden. This seems a stretch, since horticulture may be one of the few areas Du Bois did not explore. However, Du Bois would probably be pleased with a commemorative garden on the same university campus that houses his archives. And who knows? Were he alive today, he might well speak out against genetically modified organisms.•


Du Bois In Our Time, University Museum of Contemporary Art, Amherst, through December 8, 2013.

Author: Laura Holland

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