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African-American and African Diaspora Art  
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Gay and lesbian representation in the visual arts created by people of the African Diaspora emerged most clearly in the late twentieth century as artists began to explore issues specific to gender and sexuality. Artists attracted to members of their own sex certainly existed all along, but prior to the late twentieth century their visibility was not nearly as apparent and their work did not deal explicitly with themes relating to their sexuality.

For example, the American expatriate nineteenth-century sculptor Mary Edmonia Lewis (1845-1890) was probably a lesbian and Harlem Renaissance-era sculptor James Richmond Barthé (1901-1989) was almost certainly gay, but neither Lewis nor Barthé publicly declared their homosexuality.

Drawing on a long tradition of autobiography in African-American history, however, contemporary artists rely heavily on self-portraiture, which almost necessarily involves the exploration of sexual and affectional issues. Perhaps because African-American culture has traditionally been unaccepting of homosexuality, many artists of color remain "closeted" longer than their counterparts in the majority white culture. Thus, many of these artists find themselves dealing with issues of external and internal as well as external and internal racism.

At the same time, however, much of the contemporary work incorporates desire and longing, in both sexual relations and in representing the self, as well as in demanding representation of lives and sexualities that are otherwise ignored or suppressed. As the focus of that desire, the body figures prominently in these representations.

For many artists, the simple act of representing the self in visual form becomes a radical declarative act; photography thus has been a primary medium through which to achieve visibility because the act of photographing validates the subject depicted. For both the artist and the viewer the artmaking process often functions as a form of therapy as wounds are opened and healed through the power of visualization.

Furthermore, reclaiming the historical imagery that every Diaspora artist shares is also an essential element in the empowerment of the gay or lesbian artist of African descent. In doing so, artists can embrace or reject stereotypes based on their own revaluation of images that have previously been imposed upon them. On the other hand, not every gay or lesbian artist of the African Diaspora addresses sexuality and gender issues in their work.

Early Figures

Mary Edmonia Lewis, an African-American expatriate who lived and worked in Rome in the 1860s and 1870s, is noted primarily for her marble busts, executed in a neo-classical style, of American abolitionists and Transcendentalists, as well as sculptures of allegorical and literary subjects.

James Richmond Barthé, the only Harlem Renaissance artist to exploit the black male nude for its political and erotic significance, is particularly noted for his images of dancing male and female figures. His work reveals both a mastery of traditional techniques and a deep interest in primitivism.

Also associated with the Harlem Renaissance was a friend and probable lover of Barthé, Richard Bruce Nugent (1906-1987). He was undoubtedly the most openly gay African-American artist of his time. In the 1920s and 1930s, he contributed artwork and stories to a number of publications. His famous story, "Smoke, Lilies, and Jade" (1926), which may be the first depiction of homosexual and bisexual desire in African-American fiction, was accompanied by his illustrations when it appeared in the only published number of the literary quarterly Fire!!

Artists of Color in England

In the 1980s England emerged as a hotbed of artistic activity for artists of color, especially individuals hailing from the West African country of Nigeria, a former British colony that has been self-governing only since 1960. Nigeria has contributed an extraordinary number of curators and artists (some of Nigerian descent rather than Nigerian-born) to the contemporary arts dialogue in England and North America, and many of them deal with gender- and sexuality-related issues.

Among these are artist and art historian Olu Oguibe (b. 1964) and curator and editor Okwui Enwezor (b. 1963), co-editors (with Salah M. Hassan) of Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art; mixed media artist Yinka Shonibare (b. 1962); painter Chris Ofili (b. 1968); photographer and installation artist Oladélé Bamgboyé (b. 1963); and gay photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955-1989).

Part of the reason for this artistic emergence are the writings of prominent gay male theorists such as Kobena Mercer (b. 1960) and filmmaker Isaac Julien (b. 1960), who, in addition to writing about artists of African descent, have written extensively on the representation of Africans and African Americans by gay white artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe.

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The Negro Looks Ahead by James Richmond Barthé.
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