ON FEBRUARY 9 the BBC will broadcast a radio documentary about the life and work of Archibald Motley, Jr., an African-American, Jazz Age artist who rose to prominence in Chicago in the early 1900s.
Often seen as belonging to the Harlem Renaissance – the intellectual, social and artistic movement which began in New York City in the 1920s and which re-defined how America, not to mention the world, viewed African-Americans, Motley lived and died in Chicago, in particular the black neighbourhood of Bronzeville on the city’s infamous South side.
Despite the exposure and impact that Motley’s work has had in the USA, he has not been fully appreciated here in the U.K, and has not yet received the critical acclaim he wholly deserves – something which this BBC documentary seeks to rectify.
In the documentary, writer and broadcaster Lindsay Johns embarks on a journey to Chicago to find out more about Motley the artist and the burgeoning black metropolis which both nurtured him physically and inspired him artistically.
From interviews with museum curators, the artist’s relatives and jazz musicians to attending gospel choir practices and soul food restaurants, Johns goes in search of the true spirit of Motley.
Motley almost exclusively painted black people of all shades, social classes and backgrounds in a conscious effort to humanize them and to create progressive, dignified and uplifting images of his people against the backdrop of a heinously racist white American society.
Many of Motley’s paintings depicted African-Americans in a plethora of different everyday settings, be it in churches, nightclubs or street scenes and were noticeable for their dazzling array of tones, as well as their ebullience, vivacity and passion.
Motley’s art tackled extremely important issues such as the politics of skin tone, a topic which continues to resonate to this day in the UK, almost one hundred years later, especially given the recent furore over Megan Markle and the heated, polarising debate about her shade of black.
A classically trained artist who even studied in Paris (he won a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship to study there in 1929), Motley used his technical skills to undermine racial stereotypes and to dismantle debilitating racial pseudo-science, effectively asking in his art what constituted blackness.
Moreover, Motley strove in his paintings to show that, contrary to erroneous white perceptions, blackness was complex, nuanced and multi-dimensional and that there was not one monolithic black experience which all African-Americans had. His subjects often varied in skin tone (hence the title of the documentary), a phenomenon echoed in his own view about racism and blackness.
“And that’s why I say that racism is the first thing that they have got to get out of their heads, forget about this damned racism, to hell with racism. That means nothing to an artist. We’re all human beings. And the sooner that’s forgotten and the sooner that you can come back to yourself and do the things that you want to do.”, he said in an interview with the Smithsonian Institution in 1978.
Motley himself was light skinned, of mixed heritage, and was married to a white German-American woman whom he first met at a time when inter-racial relationships were distinctly frowned upon.
Some of Motley’s most popular paintings include Blues (1929) and Nightlife (1943), as well as Portrait of My Mother (1919), Mending Socks (1924), and The Octoroon Girl (1925).
Lindsay Johns’ documentary will take listeners through over a century of Chicago’s history, incorporating both jazz and gospel music, and will attempt to place Motley’s art in its rightful historical context and evaluate his artistic legacy for the Chicago of today.
Archibald Motley, Jr. died in 1981 and bequeathed to the world many dozens of glorious, truly beautiful and life-enhancing paintings. It is hoped that this documentary will help to kickstart a renewed interest in his remarkable life and work and will bring his paintings to a new generation of audiences.
Shades of Black: The Art and Genius of Archibald Motley, Jr will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday February 9th, 2020 at 6.45pm and will be available on BBC iPlayer and BBC Sounds afterwards on: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000f6xd