On Wednesday 19th of October, in the midst of Black History month, Dr Celeste-Marie Bernier held a talk at Nottingham Contemporary examining the rare and highly under-researched art work of African- American military men during WW1. It addressed, using various examples of artwork, the plight of African American soldiers who fought on the front lines, as well as the thousands of African Americans treated as slaves in the exploitative labour battalions during the war. The shocking truth behind the role played by the African-American community is that statistically only 20% of African-Americans who signed up for military service saw battle, the other 80% lived and died in these labour battalions. The talk was frank about how neither statistic saw the fair treatment or equality to that of the white Americans who, supposedly, were on the same side.
Dr Bernier herself is an associate professor at the University of Nottingham within the department of American and Canadian studies. Her main areas of expertise lie within African American history, literature and visual culture and Slavery Studies. The talk was held as part of Black History Month where, throughout October, Nottingham is playing its part in raising awareness of black history and black cultural heritage through community events including concerts, plays, exhibitions and talks such as this.
The contemporary artist Mildred Howard was the subject for the beginning of the talk; her installations In the Line of Fire (2005) and Crossings (2006) are concerned with memorializing and reflecting upon African American participation in WW1. In the Line of Fire features life sized silk screen prints, all of which are repetitions of the same black American soldier. The work connotes a loss of identity with the repetition of the same man and a sense of death and memorial with the grave like pile of stones which they all stand solemnly and silently in front of. Crossings sees rows upon rows of tiny white eggs meticulously stuck onto the floor. The repetitions of eggs once again evokes a loss of identity but also, the breakable shells refer to the fragility of life faced by African-American soldiers. The eggs are placed within a room with walls painted a deep blue; the blue standing for the emersion of sea and of the slave ships which transported thousands of Africans to the Americas as slaves. The work also has an element of self reflection and self examination, with the hanging of opulent mirrors upon these blue walls.
The main body of Dr Bernier’s talk was centred on Horace Pippin, one of the few African-American men to actually fight on the front lines and also to document his strives; through drawings, paintings and literature. He was one of the few surviving black soldiers of the war, as a result of being sent home after getting shot during a battle and losing the use of his right arm. A painting completed after this injury, which resonated with me after the talk, was End of the War. The painting has a thick, impasto surface consisting of hundreds of layers of house paint. This extreme layering reveals a sense of compulsion or obsession on Pippin’s part, as though the image was a form of exorcism from the horrors of war. The painting depicts, at first glance, white German soldiers surrendering but, through closer inspection, reveals the bodies of black men lying amongst them. Whist Pippin is never again as graphic as this in his works, the constant and usually failed struggle for life by African-American soldiers and a sense of extreme injustice runs through much of his art work.
What I found most moving were the images created by Pippin whilst he was on the front line. Dr Bernier has analyzed, as much as the limited sources will let her, the drawings by Pippin found within a series of note books and diaries that he kept with him during his time in the trenches. Dr Bernier teamed these drawings with a frank and uncensored description of the realities faced by African-American soldiers during WW1 for example hunting for bombs with no form of protection and digging graves for the dead. Seeing these images and knowing what Pippin must have been subjected to as he created them was an emotive thing in itself but after Dr Bernier made the audience aware that Pippin was made to destroy most of them by German officials, the sense of injustice reaches its pinnacle. Pippin is quoted to have said “Art came by me the hard way” and whether this is referring to his injured and useless arm or to the broader picture of African-American injustice during WW1, is open to interpretation.
There is still significant intellectual work to be done on such a collective of art and Dr Bernier continues to explore and reveal what is yet to be seen. What the audience was made acutely aware of throughout the talk was the difficulty of locating original sources of African-American art during WW1 and subsequently these raised questions of whether such art practices had been conveniently forgotten about in favour of a more ideological representation of the war.
(Dr Celetste-Marie Bernier will be running a similar discussion on November 15th @ the New Art Exchange. Titled “The Battlefield Was Hell:Black Soldiers write and paint WW1” the event is free and starts at 6pm)