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The African American Art of Varnette Honeywood
Throughout the 20th century, African American artists have used their creative powers to document and celebrate the historical record of their people. In the process, they have promoted an alternative perspective for younger generations harmed by stereotypical images of black life pervading American popular culture. For many decades following the Harlem Renaissance, a major approach to these objectives has involved genre paintings depicting African Americans in a wide variety of activities and settings. Cumulatively, these artworks have effectively countered the racist legacy that has despoiled American history.
An exceptional descendant of this striking tradition is Los Angeles artist Varnette Honeywood. A highly versatile artist currently in mid-career, she has produced scores of vibrant and colorful artworks that reveal the exuberance and creativity of black life. Her paintings, collages, and prints use visual language to continue the long story-telling tradition of her people. Like most of her African American predecessors and contemporaries, she eschews the notion of “art for art's sake,” instead opting to produce work that communicates deeply felt thoughts and ideas to her audiences.
Except for her college years in Atlanta, Honeywood has been a lifelong resident of Los Angeles. Her experiences have been similar to those of most African Americans in this community and elsewhere. Her knowledge of the effects of racism on her family have combined with more personal encounters with racist attitudes and practices to influence the fundamental direction of her mature artistic work. Migrants from Mississippi, her parents often discussed their intense memories of the Jim Crow environment of the early 20th century. They were also subjected to racial harassment in Los Angeles when they moved into a mixed neighborhood. Honeywood's grandfather too had been victimized by a Klan cross burning.
In high school in the late 1960s, Honeywood and her fellow African American students were prohibited from wearing “Afros,” then a visible symbol of black power and resistance. Even more important, she observed the insidious policy of discouraging minority students from proceeding to higher education, instead manipulating them to low paying, menial jobs with little or no future prospects.
At the same time, high school enabled her to learn about the history of her own people. Her consciousness about black history catalyzed her strong desire to become a history teacher, a professional role that would allow her to make major contributions to her community. Like many young people during that era, she attended civil rights and other rallies and protest demonstrations. She discovered that visual art played a powerful role in the broader struggles for equality and human dignity. This recognition soon merged with her formal studies. At Spelman College, she took a drawing course, where her talent soon received recognition and encouragement. Her major influence at Spelman was the renowned African American artist Kofi Bailey whose Pan-African perspective infused his own socially conscious figurative art.
Like many prominent African American artists in that community, Honeywood acknowledges an immense gratitude to Cecil Ferguson, curator and community activist whose assistance to black artists has been instrumental both in their personal careers and in the wider recognition of their artistic tradition and legacy. Honeywood also received valuable help from well established African American artists, Ruth Waddy and Samella Lewis.
Following her graduation from Spelman, Honeywood returned to Los Angeles, where she obtained her masters degree in education from the University of Southern California. For five years, she worked at the Joint Educational Project, teaching art to largely minority students and designing various multicultural arts and crafts programs with her students. She also taught art at the central Juvenile Hall, an experience she remembers as extremely difficult. This background furthered her commitment to young people, fortifying her desire to provide positive visual images for black children, one of the central premises of her entire artistic career.
Her visit to Nigeria in 1977 had a profound effect upon her artistic work. Her African travels solidified her emotional linkage to her own ancestors and reinforced her view that African Americans must look to Africa as a source of identity, pride, and creativity.
From 1978 to the present, she has collaborated with her sister in creating and sustaining an art reproduction business based on her own work. Together, they produce and distribute notecards, posters, and similar products to the public, thereby ensuring a substantial audience for Honeywood's artwork.
Honeywood was also influenced by some of the venerable figures of that tradition, including Jacob Lawrence, Archibald Motley, William H. Johnson, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, and Charles White. Lawrence's Migration Series, for example, reflected her own parents' experiences, stimulating her own commitment to memorialize the lives of African American people in Los Angeles and elsewhere.
Honeywood views her works as visual documents to create an historical record of African American suffering and triumphs. For her, this objective reflects her own identification of the spirit of social consciousness and protest of the 1960s. A collage from 1973 effectively exemplifies this perspective. “Slavery” (Figure 1) depicts the tragic origins of African American history in the new world. Emerging from his forced labor in a Southern cotton field, the black male at the top right of the composition expresses his intense agony. His reaction reflects the pain of his people, driven from their ancestral homelands and brutalized into submission and humiliation for many centuries.
A recurring theme in Honeywood's work is the vibrancy of black culture despite the barriers of racial oppression. Her 1981 watercolor entitled “Club Alabam: Down at the Dunbar” (Figure 2) combines strong composition, striking color, and significant historical content. The time frame of the painting dates from the 1940s, based on her parents' vivid memories of their own young adulthood. A visual statement of the black lifestyle of the period, the effort highlights Central Avenue in Los Angeles, then the center of a thriving African American community. For Honeywood's parents and thousands of others, Central Avenue was the place to congregate, the West Coast counterpart to the busy streets of New York's Harlem. As the work reveals, people strolled the avenue, savoring the multiple delights of food, music, dance, and human conviviality.
Central Avenue attracted major black luminaries in all fields. In the background, the artist depicts the Dunbar Hotel, the legendary stop for black musicians, artists, and others excluded from the major white hotels in the Jim Crow environment of Los Angeles in the early 20th century.
Throughout her career, Honeywood has also used her art to express her strong solidarity with black women throughout the world. “Virtuous Woman” (Figure 3), a serigraph from 1988, reflects in several ways the impact of her trip to Africa. The artist surrounds the image with “Nkyimkyim,” the twisting African symbol of toughness and adaptability. Drawing on her impressive capacity as a colorist, she presents the woman as ready and fully able to handle any adversity and withstand any hardship. Most important, the image speaks eloquently to young African American women, for whom the dual barriers of racism and sexism present daunting and persistent daily challenges.
In “Taking Care of Business” (Figure 4), Honeywood identifies and celebrates the political role of black women in America. From the abolitionist movements to the civil rights struggles of the recent past and present, these heroic women have provided both leadership and organizational skill in the fight for political and social justice. In this collage, she depicts three women working hard to get out the vote, to ensure that African Americans are adequately represented in the electoral contests of the day. Created in 1983, the work reflected the strong support in African American communities at the time for Jesse Jackson's candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president. The artist's grandfather, for example, felt immense excitement and gratification in being able to vote for a black candidate for the nation's highest office. “Taking Care of Business” both documents a major historical reality and encourages other black women to extend the legacy of their socially active sisters.
Honeywood augments her artistic mission through her focus on the underrecognized creative activities of black people generally. “Kuumba” (Figure 5) appropriates (and incorporates into the work) the Swahili word for creativity and draws on one of the seven Kwanzaa principles to provide a strongly positive image of the multiple talents of people of African origin. In this mixed media effort, Honeywood portrays several figures of impressively creative accomplishments. She includes various examples of creativity, including architecture, historical research and communication, photography, printmaking, sculpture, and painting. Significantly, she highlights people of varying skin colors, a celebration of the diversity of black people in America and throughout the world. In “Kuumba,” she provides a detailed and colorful background of West African fabric and symbols.
In a silkscreen produced for the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta in 1990, she focuses on the unique and multifaceted contributions of black people to American arts. “Generations of Creative Genius” (Figure 6) portrays, from left to right, a dancer, a writer, a painter, and a musician. Each of these artistic enterprises has deep roots in African American history. Each figure is attired in African dress, with symbols from the motherland present to remind viewers of the inextricable links between Africa and its sons and daughters of the Diaspora.
In a provocative acrylic painting from 1990, Honeywood critiques the widely held attitude among white Americans about African American family dysfunction and irresponsibility. “Don't B-Live the Hype” (Figure 7) counters this destructive stereotype by depicting a young black family man warmly embracing his three children. Employed and fully committed to authentic family values, the man exemplifies the loving relationships that people of all ethnic backgrounds cherish and attempt to establish. Honeywood's central point is deliberately unambiguous: African Americans—no less than anyone else-care deeply about their children, despite the negative and distorted publicity so pervasively promoted by mainstream communication media.
The very title of the painting, moreover, conveys a particular message to young African Americans, especially males. The artist implores them to neither “B” the hype nor to “Live” the hype of black irresponsibility. Moreover, she reinforces her affection for her specific subjects through various details in the work. She calls attention to their own creative capabilities by highlighting the colorful spray-can art in the background. This highly imaginative art form, widely disparaged in the media as mere vandalism, ironically repeats the central theme of the artwork. The young son at the lower left of the painting pointedly wears an African medallion, reiterating the artist's regular identification of Africa as the source of all black accomplishments, ranging from the arts to the sustenance of family life.
In 1991, Varnette Honeywood produced a painting that simultaneously acknowledged the value of her own college education and the continuing vitality of historically black colleges generally. “The Groundbreaking” (Figure 8) commemorates the new Camille Cosby Academic Center at Spelman College, a generous gift from Bill and Camille Cosby that houses the Art Museum, the Women's Center, and the Library. Used as the cover for the Spelman Alumni News Magazine, the work depicts, from left to right, Camille Cosby, Spelman President Johnnetta Cole, the project architect, the chair of the Board of Trustees, a Spelman student, and Bill Cosby. Each participant in the ceremony is justifiably proud of the broader accomplishments of the college in providing education and opportunity for generations of African American students. That message has intimate personal significance for the artist, for without her own experiences at Spelman, she would not have achieved the well deserved professional artistic recognition she presently enjoys.
For centuries, the principle of “Kuumba” has enabled African Americans to work diligently to correct the regrettable misimpressions about their history, their culture, and their very humanity. Creative orators, political organizers, writers, artists, scholars, and many others over the years have used their talents to offer more realistic accounts of the black experience. The visual arts continue to play a powerful role in this process. Varnette Honeywood has undertaken the responsibility to extend the tradition of visual social commentary. Her purposeful and empathetic dedication to the rituals, traditions, hopes, and frustrations of her people assures her reputation as an artist of remarkable distinction and visibility. Z
Paul Von Blum teaches art and is the author of Critical Vision (South End Press). He acknowledges support for this article from the UCLA Institute of American Cultures and the Center for African American Studies.