The Aesthetic of W.E.B. Du Bois


Newly commissioned works by 10 international artists pay tribute to the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois, intellectual and Civil Rights activist. Including Brendan Fernandes, Julie Mehretu and Carrie Mae Weems, the exhibition “Du Bois in our Time” is at the University Museum of Contemporary Art (UMCA) in Amherst, Mass. (through Dec. 8).

Though his work is not as widely known as, for example, that of Martin Luther King Jr., the name W.E.B. Du Bois should be synonymous with the Civil Rights movement. Cofounder of the NAACP and a prolific author, intellectual and activist, Du Bois directed his efforts toward issues as diverse as freeing African colonies from European powers, championing the Harlem Renaissance, and fighting racism in the United States military. Radcliffe Bailey’s bronze sculpture of Du Bois is perhaps the most direct homage, depicting him in a pose reminiscent of Rodin’s The Thinker.

“His work laid the foundation for numerous movements in public dissent, and his actions opened the door for future generations of dissenters of all colors and creeds,” UMCA director Loretta Yarlow told A.i.A. by e-mail. “His relevance today is all the more compelling as a global figure.”

The work produced for “Du Bois in Our Time” is a testament to that influence. The Nigerian artist Mary Evans’s installation of brown paper silhouettes references the horrors of the Ghanaian slave port Castle of Elmina. The composition speaks to the stripping of African identity resulting from colonization and the slave trade, wounds Du Bois fought tirelessly to mend.

Each artist was given access to the comprehensive Du Bois archive at the University of Massachusetts and was asked to use the collection in collaboration with four Du Bois scholars to help inform their work.

Each approached the discussion of Du Bois’ legacy from a different angle. Ann Messner included facsimiles of historical documents that reference Du Bois as part of her installation. A declassified FBI file that calls the fervent peace activist an “enemy of the state” highlights the government’s fear of dissent. Mickalene Thomas evokes Du Bois’s empowerment of undermined communities through her rhinestone-encrusted paintings that rejoice in black women’s hair. LaToya Ruby Frazier draws inspiration from a speech Du Bois gave in 1930 about the abysmal state of the town he grew up in. Frazier’s distinctly personal photographs of her beleaguered hometown of Braddock, in Pennsylvania’s Monongahela River Valley, painfully illustrate the economic turmoil and disenfranchisement of urban African-Americans.

The global scale of Du Bois’s influence is attested to by a related show scheduled for next year at the Nebuke Foundation and the Du Bois Centre, both in Accra, Ghana (opening in March 2014). In describing why she thought it was important to pay tribute to Du Bois aesthetically, Yarlow said she hoped the Massachusetts show would help demonstrate “the role of the artist as social conscience, which can help move us to reshape our culture and humanity.”