Pedro Figari Candombe 1921
Pedro Figari
Candombe 1921

Black Atlantic Avant-Gardes examines the convergence of modernism and the Black Atlantic in early twentieth-century art. At the beginning of the century, European artists looked to African art for inspiration; however, in separating these artworks from their original African context and meaning they often misunderstood them, labelling them ‘fetishes’ or ‘primitive’.

Artists from the United States, the Caribbean and South America responded to and challenged this European art, developing their own distinctive forms of modernism, such as the Harlem Renaissance in the United States and the Pau Brazil and Anthropofagia movements in Brazil. Instances of transatlantic exchange occurred through actual journeys made by artists, writers and performers, as well as through the spread of aesthetic influences and ideas.

Aaron Douglas Aspiration 1936

Aaron Douglas
Aspiration 1936

Courtesy Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco
© Estate of Aaron Douglas

The Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas can be seen as a foundational figure of Black Atlantic modernism. In his paintings, Douglas depicted African heritage as a source of pride, and modern African-American life as a focus for aspiration. He also created illustrations for the magazine The Crisis, embodying founding editor W.E.B. Du Bois’s idea that African-Americans lived in a state of double-consciousness: ‘It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others…’

During the 1920s Paris became the centre of a craze for black culture, known as Negrophilia, which encompassed modern art, literature, fashion and music. Nancy Cunard was among the celebrity figures particularly associated with this phenomenon, which was seen as providing a means of renewal for European culture after the shock of the First World War. While Negrophilia made stars of black performers such as Josephine Baker, it also frequently perpetuated stereotypes of black peoples and culture.