“I be off the slave ship building pyramids and writing my own hieroglyphs.”
—Kendrick Lamar, “HiiiPoWeR”
While working as an advisor on the exhibition “Touching Roots: Black Ancestral Legacies in the Americas,” I often thought of Kendrick Lamar’s 2011 song “HiiiPoWeR.” Lamar describes Pan-Africanism for a new generation through lyrics that respond to historical references and introduce wordplay. The song also includes subliminal messages, just like several artworks in “Touching Roots” contain a formal element that functions in the same way: color. Along with my fellow advisors, Dr. Kyrah Malika Daniels, Stephen Hamilton, and Napoleon Jones-Henderson, I noticed how color is a powerful thread throughout the exhibition. In shows about Black art, color is typically examined in the context of skin tone, which can be a source of division because of colorism. But colors can also guide us all through our shared ancestry, nudge us toward social change, and unite rather than divide us.
In the exhibition, you’ll see deep blues painted on the walls; in the art, you’ll see bright reds, vibrant greens, and shimmering purples. All these colors are used with intention. The advisors and curator chose the wall color to evoke indigo blue and the dyeing process Yorùbá women in Nigeria use to make adire cloth. Equal parts chemical synergy and ancestral alchemy, indigo dyeing is central to the practices of many artists with work in “Touching Roots,” including Ifé Franklin and Stephen Hamilton.
Another work that ties into the theme of color in a subtle way is Aaron Douglas’s Untitled (1930). It appears to be grayscale in person, but it originally had a purple hue, which faded to gray in the almost-century since it was made. Many with deep understanding and belonging to the Black community know that externally it is viewed as an absence of color, but in intention is vibrant and colorful. Douglas’s work is a high point to discuss color; he used a signature green and purple palette from Egyptian Revivalism in the 1920s and ’30s, which directly calls back to the important rediscovery of the tomb of King Tut in the West. In using these colors, Douglas de-emphasizes plantation enslavement by considering it as a blip or a small portion of the fantastical saga of Black history, and focuses on a royal past. This philosophical outlook was concurrent with the New Negro movement, which was named after an anthology of art criticism and literature edited by Alain Locke in 1925 and pursued liberation through revisiting ancestral art forms and encouraging creativity.
Kofi Bailey’s George Jackson (1971) marks another important moment in color. Made in the years after the civil rights movement, the painting draws on multiple strands of Black Nationalism, including the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, Garveyism, and the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Marcus Garvey and the UNIA created the Pan-African flag in 1920, whose color has distinct meaning: red represents the blood shared by those of Black African ancestry that was shed for liberation; black symbolizes Black people as a nation, although not represented by a nation-state; and green illustrates the vibrant wealth of the motherland of the African continent. In the 1970s, activists reappropriated the red, black, and green in artwork, adornment, and flags of newly independent African countries. Bailey memorializes George Jackson—a Marxist and Black Nationalist thinker who was killed in prison by a security guard during an escape attempt—strategically, with red, black, and green representing racial pride; a gun; and a portrait of Jackson with a calm expression. The juxtaposition of Jackson’s expression and the gun communicates that the armed struggle for liberation and militancy comes from a place of self-defense and decades-long aspirations of reconnecting all Black people. In the exhibition, we placed this work near a section of art made in the early 20th century, including Douglas’s Untitled, which also has a distinct graphic style and political sensibility. And Bailey was brought under the tutelage of folks like James Porter, Alain Locke, and interlocutors of Aaron Douglas, furthering these threads of shared heritage.
Napoleon Jones-Henderson is a member of the important Chicago-formed artist collective AfriCOBRA (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), which began in the 1970s and espoused ideas about color and luminosity in their manifesto—emphasizing what they call “coolade” colors. Napoleon enacts these principles in Tricky Slicky (1991) by incorporating the shine of metallic threads from an old Rhode Island textile mill and blue, red, and green colors that start at the elephant mask and dissolve into a motif reminiscent of the Great Pyramids in Egypt. Elephant masks, which have roots in early 20th-century Cameroon, commemorated the dead and were worn during ceremonial occasions by royalty, court officials, and warriors admitted to the Kuosi society. The elephant, according to the Kuosi society, was thought to be the alter ego of kings and a conduit to commune with the ancestors. Tricky Slicky’s black background holds together these elements, as well as a drawing by Tyrone Geter of a Maasai boy. Black, in many African spiritual traditions, represents the egun (the Yorùbá word for ancestors) and the unknown. AfriCOBRA members often started with black backgrounds in their visual practice, passing this down to generations of students working in painting or textiles to normalize the color black as a baseline and to challenge Western practices of starting with a gessoed white canvas.
“HiiiPoWer” is 11 years old, but its 21st-century reinterpretation of Pan-African ideology is as relevant and urgent as ever. When Lamar raps, “Visions of Martin Luther staring at me / If I see it how he seen it, that would make my parents happy / Sorry, mama, I can’t turn the other cheek,” he’s calling on a new generation to articulate resistance through new visual and political languages. These three artworks speak to how the visual language of certain colors morphed over time and how color animated political movements; Douglas, Bailey, and Jones-Henderson—like Lamar—reexamine ancestral symbology and beliefs to create a new language and artistic identity.
Some of the artists with work in “Touching Roots” have not been to the African continent, and some have traveled widely throughout their ancestral homeland and the Caribbean. There is a way for all of us to share our voices and assert self-expression. This is significant for me, and extends into an affirmation of belonging: I decorate my home with souvenirs from my mother’s travels to Ghana—ceramic vessels, prints, and paintings—that are full of patterns and colors, but because of faulty myths of professional attire, I have felt self-conscious with big hair and wearing these bright colors and patterns in museum spaces. But when among the advisors for “Touching Roots” and the colorful artworks in the show, each an expression of spirituality, culture, and political resistance, I feel these aesthetic choices are welcomed and encouraged.
This essay is adapted from a series of Spotlight Talks the author gave at MFA Boston as part of its Juneteenth open house on Monday, June 20, 2022.