A young woman looks out at us from under semi-closed eyelids. Her forehead and cheeks are painted white; dramatic diagonal red lines intersect at the bridge of her nose, leaving her mouth and chin exposed. Painter Loïs Mailou Jones—who was born and raised in Boston and attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts—was fascinated by this woman and created her portrait in 1972. Its title, Ubi Girl from Tai Region, reveals that the woman spoke the Ubi dialect and was from the Taï region of Côte d’Ivoire, which Jones visited among many other countries on an extended trip to Africa. The artist had dreamed of traveling to the continent since her 20s, if not earlier, and at the age of 65, she fulfilled a career-long ambition.
Africa held an allure for many 20th-century African American artists, as they sought a framework different from European traditions in order to create a liberated African American art form. For Jones, figuring out who she was as Black, as a woman, and as a painter, was a deep endeavor that evolved with her experiences and travels. Her trips to Africa transformed her work; afterward she painted more boldly and intimately than she ever had before.
In this painting, the girl’s visage floats on the canvas, surrounded by two types of masks: in profile, possibly a large Dan mask from Liberia or Côte d’Ivoire, and in orange outline, two Pende masks from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Surrounding those are bright red, blue, and yellow designs that recall motifs in these cultures’ fabrics and decorations. Their geometries are echoed in the Ubi girl’s face, which is where Jones took artistic license, as girls usually had their faces painted white for their initiation celebration into womanhood. Jones was purposeful about the motifs she included in her paintings. Masks are potent vehicles to communicate with spirits; the Dan mask represents a specifically female spirit, and the blue and red twisting lines in the lower left corner are a pattern of the Edo, from Benin Kingdom, called “rope of the world,” representing a person’s lifetime. In this painting, Jones sees the girl as connected to the strong women in her extended family, past and present. Jones may have felt a kinship to her as she considered her relationship to ancestral Africa and the women who linked her to this land.
Jones realized that Blackness is a shared experience, passed through generations, through colonial oppression on both sides of the Atlantic. On her trips, she visited fledging African nations that had just won their independence in the 1960s. Jones must have seen them as harbingers of the racial equality that could be possible in the United States.
The female strength of Ubi Girl from Tai Region moves me to reflect on the many incredible Black women fighting for social justice today, especially as we mark the historic accomplishment of Vice President Kamala Harris and celebrate what it inspires in young BIPOC girls around the globe. I want to shine a light on Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, who in 2013 cofounded the now international Black Lives Matter movement, which continues to galvanize the world. These women stand on the shoulders of fierce champions of the civil rights movement. For instance, Fannie Lou Hamer was fired from her job picking cotton because she tried to vote and subsequently became a civil rights activist; Dorothy Height advocated for criminal justice reform; Marsha P. Johnson stood on the frontlines of the LGBT liberation movement; and Amelia Boynton Robins championed voting, property, and education rights for African Americans. Inspired by Jones’s painting—and how female ancestors are recalled to the present to guide and shape the future—I hold space for these women, and the many more whose names are no longer known, who propagate fortitude and resilience through generations.
With contribution from Kathryn Gunsch, director of Collections and Teel Curator of African and Oceanic Art.