What is modern of course always has a genesis. Scholars and artists alike have mused over – say, the origins of hiphop – some suggesting it can be traced back to the griot traditions of continental Africa.
The influence of the Black Arts Movement which experienced its zenith in the 1960’s to 1970’s can be very much felt in the lyrics and rhythms of hiphop music. The prodigious rapper Tupac Shukar sited BAM architect Sonia Sanchez as one of his major inspirations.
I can remember being moist-palmed, jittery but proud as I stood to read from Sonia’s “A Blues Book for a Blue Black Magic Woman“, at my small community college. Only to be told afterwards by my professor that the poetry was propagandist, pedestrian and definitely not art. Crushed to chalk, I walked back to my seat.
A critic of BAM suggested it was the most unsuccessful and shortest lived of the Black historical movements (Henry Louis Gates). This is not at all the case. And like another movement that was also dubbed “short lived” in Art History chronology, The Fauvist Movement, its impact is profoundly acknowledged in the artistic, cultural and political landscape of post-modernist history. The two movements I submit can be merged to co-exist in a symbiosis of inquiry and illumination. I suggest this merger as Literary Fauvism.
Beneath every apparent placid surface there lies the unruly ocean of complexity (Merrell, 1998).
This is the first basis on which fauvist critique of literature is grounded – forwarding a broader expansion of the definitional idiom, which asserts that one cannot compare a phrase or verse’ realm of imagery with its assumed explicit counterpart, as not all poetic imagery can be compared to explicit space. This is because the so-called essentialism that is embodied within the phrase, verse or complete literary work has created imagery more in keeping with physical emotion, and a tapping of the senses. The use of literary fauvism is not purely image for image’s sake, or image to describe greater visions, but rather, the image possesses meaning, and that meaning is tied within the reader’s immanent cultural perceptions.
Different from interpreting literature as simply structuralist or poststructuralist, literary fauvism is not located solely within the geography of the writer, as the spatial and rhythmic development of verse or phrase kindles a new geography within the reader that is inextricably tied to the universal senses and universal emotions that are themselves instinctive. Fauvism was the first movement to insist in explicit terms that a painting is the sum of the marks made on the canvas rather than a mirror held up to life, or to nature, or to literature which accounts for the chief characteristics of the first true Fauve paintings being composed of briskly applied strokes, patches and dabs of brilliant colour.
Literary fauvism may further be described astranslations of cross-cultural syncretization from spaces of conjure to realms of understanding. Where exact translations do not exist, there is the creation of a linguistic understanding within the reader that has not been adequately investigated. Phenomenology teaches us that consciousness is always conscious of something, therefore, in literary fauvism, this consciousness does not influence beliefs purely within African conceptualism, as conceptions of Africa may not exist, but rather shapes the blank spaces into meaning, as the emotional psyche in literature and visual art does not acknowledge a partially filled scope.
The Robert Frost medal recipient of the Black Arts Movement, Sonia Sanchez, employs lively syntax, rhythms and irony in the first six lines of the poem, Personal Letter #3
nothing will keep
us young you know
not young men or
women who spin
their youth on
cool playing sounds.
A fuller understanding of the breadth of the poem may be enhanced by a literary fauvist critique:
Though “cool playing sounds” may conjure visions of the greater, therefore creating a likeness to explicit space, the ante-space, the space left absent between those words is what gives rise to the conjuring of fauvist emotion. This brings us to the second centrepiece of literary fauvist criticism, the acknowledgement of cultural signifiers within the poetry, and it’s ability to conjure space and sense, not just from its geography, but to unknown geographies, e.g. persons that are not designated culturally other.
The lines, “cool playing sounds” within the geography of the poet, relates to jazz or at least soulful music, but the untold emotion, for the non-astute to the rhythm and reference is still not lost. Why? Because the words “cool”, and “play “and “sounds”, within the African linguistic identity has a translation within a non-African linguistic identity, and the emotion conjured would indeed be similar, void of jazz. This is a non-quantifiable characteristic, this wild, unrestrained quality present in the work of cultures of alterity, yet it is what influences the modernist writing styles post the Black Arts Movement and will be trademark in the work of future artists.
Poets representing oppressed groups are reproached quite frequently for what is considered to be propagandist and rhetorical writing styles.
Take a look at “Fresh Zombies” by Amiri Baraka:
OK Shuffles. Stink in neon
Lie in lights. Betray before millions
Assassinate w/ slogans. Not old toms
but New Toms, Double Toms
A Tom Tom Macoute. Fresh Zombies.
House Nigger maniacs. Oreo serial
That thumping, that horrible sound,
is not music, not drums, but shuffling
Not old toms, New Toms, Double Toms
A Tom Tom Macoute. Fresh Zombies.
Repositioning critiques of obtuseness, literary fauvism gives way to a national linguistic sound, an impressionistic rhythm that must be defined as “the sum of the marks”. Obtuseness of imagery is a literary tool employed by fauvist writers to represent the emotion of the all, instead of a symbol of the component. The words “stink”, “neon”, “betray”, “slogans”, “drums”, “shuffling” is what allows this piece’s transition from the bounds of purely surrealist writing, although it is surreal. Yet it is the cultural signifier’s that hold intimate and “cultish” triggers for both the author and those in Black Power struggles of the 1960’s that creates the fauvist character of the poem.
In women’s literature Black women’s sexuality is often described in obtuse ways in orderfor the reader to fill in the one-dimensional spaces women occupy in representation. Fauvism is therefore used to make inclusive the sexuality and sensuality not void of the political, religious, social, spiritual and cultural identity of women. This is in opposition to the male point of view where ideas tend to be compartmentalized.
Review the first stanza of the poem “In the Morning” by Jayne Cortez:
Disguised in my mouth as a
nailed to my teeth like a rising sun
you come out in the middle of fish-
you bleed into gourds wrapped with
you syncopate the air with lungs like
like X rated tongues
and nickel plated fingers of a raw ghost
you touch brown nipples into knives
and somewhere stripped like a
stripped for the shrine room
you sing to me through the side face of
The national linguistic sound can be obtained from interpreting the whole of the stanza, the words instantly disjointed into separate phrases create an entire centrepiece of image:
“swampland”, “rising sun”, “gourds”, “red ants”, “brown nipples”, “whirlwind”, “shrine”, “black rooster”.
We are instantly within Africa; we’ve created a ritual, a deeply rooted national linguistic identity – voodoo, and magic, a conjuring of spirituality. Yet, this poem is deeply romantic, feminine, and layered on top of those words are others: “mouth”, “rising”, “fish-scales”, “bleed”, “screams”, “tongues”, “nickel pleated”, “brown nipples”, “stripped”,”sing” – you instantly are given a full, second picture, the woman, the vulnerability lays juxtaposed with the same importance as the first African linguistic identity discussed. Then, we have a third layering, the man, who is lathered with this imagery, to a lesser degree, with the words and phrases, “red ants”, “syncopate the air with lungs”, “raw ghost man”, “black rooster”.
The abstract quality, the fauvist use of different angles and views and the elevation of seemingly antithetical descriptions of passion and love leave lots of room/space to conjure atypical religiosity or spiritual references engendered by our own musings about the indigenous spiritual practices of alienated cultures.
The ability to see from a variety of perspectives and dimensions can only enhance our understanding of ourselves. This line of artistic inquiry (Literary Fauvism) may be seen as a physical manifestation of our attempts to know ourselves through understanding difference in terms of racialised perspectives but also in terms of Queer, LGBT and transgendered identity.
To be clear, finding spaces of interplay and interconnection between Black Arts Movement literature and Fauvist art is not an attempt to validate Black Art through a European lens. Rather, it is a way of expressing motifs of emotion and passion (legitimately) evoked by cultural outlaws as entryways into the universal African sense of beauty, exigency and purpose.
Kamaria Muntu is Editor and Founder of Femficatio.