Tropical Aesthetics of Black Modernism

Tropical Aesthetics of Black Modernism

The Visual Arts of Africa and its Diasporas

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Book Pages: 264 Illustrations: 56 illustrations, incl. 8 in color Published: February 2021

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, Art and Visual Culture > Art History, Caribbean Studies

In Tropical Aesthetics of Black Modernism, Samantha A. Noël investigates how Black Caribbean and American artists of the early twentieth century responded to and challenged colonial and other white-dominant regimes through tropicalist representation. With depictions of tropical scenery and landscapes situated throughout the African diaspora, performances staged in tropical settings, and bodily expressions of tropicality during Carnival, artists such as Aaron Douglas, Wifredo Lam, Josephine Baker, and Maya Angelou developed what Noël calls “tropical aesthetics”—using art to name and reclaim spaces of Black sovereignty. As a unifying element in the Caribbean modern art movement and the Harlem Renaissance, tropical aesthetics became a way for visual artists and performers to express their sense of belonging to and rootedness in a place. Tropical aesthetics, Noël contends, became central to these artists’ identities and creative processes while enabling them to craft alternative Black diasporic histories. In outlining the centrality of tropical aesthetics in the artistic and cultural practices of Black modernist art, Noël recasts understandings of African diasporic art.


“From Alexander von Humboldt to Wangechi Mutu, art historian Samantha A. Noël has tracked the allure of ‘tropical aesthetics’: landscapes, regalia, and choreographies that betray modernism's debt to the equatorial realm and its treasures. Black artists especially have had to contend with these sensibilities, responding to their appeals for diaspora camaraderie and struggling with the challenges they pose to a postfolkloric contemporaneity. This tension—along with Professor Noël's deft, critical purview—commends this important study.” — Richard J. Powell, author of Going There: Black Visual Satire

Tropical Aesthetics of Black Modernism impressively explores how artists and performers throughout the twentieth century used visual tropes of the tropics to advance different ways of knowing and imagining modernity, modernism, primitivism, imperialism, nature, the environment, decolonization, and the ‘Black speculative.’ From the artwork of Aaron Douglas, Wifredo Lam, Wangechi Mutu, and Edouard Duval-Carrié to the performances of Maya Angelou, Josephine Baker, and the jamette women of Trinidad Carnival, the book newly calls attention to the centrality of tropical aesthetics in the practice of Black internationalization.” — Krista Thompson, author of Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Samantha A. Noël is Assistant Professor in Art History at Wayne State University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations  ix
Acknowledgments  xi
Introduction. Tropicality, Modernity, and the African Diaspora  1
1. American Tropical Modernism: The African Diasporic Reaches of Aaron Douglas's Landscapes  23
2. Brazenly Avant-Garde: Wifredo Lam's Transformation of Cuba's Tropical Terrain  60
3. Early Twentieth-Century Trinidad Carnival: Tropicality and Strategies of Space-Making  96
4. Pan-African Geographies in Motion: The Tropical Performances of Maya Angelou and Josephine Baker  142
Conclusion. The Black Body, Tropicality, and the Black Speculative  177
Notes  195
Bibliography  221
Index  237
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Paper ISBN: 978-1-4780-1140-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-1-4780-1033-3