African Inspiration

As I prepare to depart for two years of service with the Peace Corps in Mali, West Africa, I can’t help but daydream of what this new experience will bring as I walk the LACMA grounds during my last days here. One of my favorite places is the sculpture garden that lies between the LACMA café and Hancock Park which features the abstract works of artists including Donald Judd, Alexander Calder, and Martin Puryear.


Martin Puryear, Decoy, 1990, cast iron, purchased with funds provided by the Art Museum Council and the Flintridge Foundation

Puryear’s sculpture Decoy sits along a path that is almost within an arm’s reach of the largest La Brea Tar Pit. With replica mammoths mistaking the pit for a watering hole (and consequently getting stuck), the tar pit nearly resembles a scene one might find in National Geographic of African elephants quenching their thirst at a desert oasis. Fittingly, this scene, as well as my own upcoming endeavor, reminded me of Puryear’s time abroad in Africa.


In the fall of 1961, John F. Kennedy paved the way for the creation of the U.S. Peace Corps, and his words on international peace and friendship during a speech at the University of Michigan resonated with many young people throughout America, including the young artist and sculptor Martin Puryear. Puryear enlisted in the U.S. Peace Corps in 1963 and headed to Sierra Leone, West Africa, in search of adventure and new experiences. While he was there, he occasionally taught art at a local school and produced many drawings, some that were intensely realistic and others that flirted with abstraction.


Martin Puryear, Untitled (Joseph Momoh), 1965, ink on tan woven paper, collection of the artist

He also met local craftsmen and carpenters and learned their techniques. Later, Puryear would write, “When I left the country and went to Africa I think that was when I really earnestly in two-dimensional terms at least…found a way to deal with what I had recently discovered about abstraction.”

Although Puryear’s Decoy was produced decades after he lived in Africa, it is interesting that these first discoveries and inclinations towards abstraction occurred during his time there, and would consequently inform his work throughout his life. Decoy, though cast in iron, certainly displays a level of craftsmanship with the material that Puryear so admired about the craftsmen in Sierra Leone. As our parents and grandparents remind us time and again, we are the sum of our experiences and Puryear’s work is certainly a testament to that. Cheers to Africa!

Jenna Turner, Curatorial Administrator, Art of the Middle East

One Response to African Inspiration

  1. But there is never an feel of Africa in Puryear’s work. It is always sterile and silent, American Academic, while Africa of humanity is filled with rhythms, colors, flowing textures and patterns. It is always weird, if not funny, how African Americans are so cut off from their roots, that they can’t even feel them anymore, at least in the visual arts. The traditions were not brought over, only music and language survived, easily brought inside of Man. As slaves were stripped of all earthly possession, only their minds and souls, to rebuild in a new land with others of different languages and tribes, as well as The Man, to beatdown any sort of visual communication, and bonding. Only the Church was allowed, to colonialize the passions, luckily, a failure to do so.

    African American artists were taught about Africa by German Expressionists, who had sought kinship through woodcuts, and sometimes sculpture, as well as often raping it of its cultural heritage, bad artists simply refining African forms into meaninglessness. Few African Americans ever capture what is essentially African in the visual Arts. Romare Bearden did, Charles Alston, though his best works were through George Braques example of world heritage, with an extremely African feel. Just as in jazz one can take a showtune and turn it from the Great White Way into the depths of the South, and a cultural heritage, while being about all of humanity. See John Coltrane’s, My Favorite Things.

    Africans arts seldom last, there are few permanenet materials in the continenet, only in Zimbabwes ancient architecture, Benin bronzes, clay of Sudan and timbuktu. little survives of the past. And building in solid form, not biodegradable as in woods and fabrics with natural textures, unexplored, and never fully developed. Which Puryears works are always like, undeveloped ideas of the other. Not built of ones emotional experience, to trigger pluralistic passions in the viewer. Kinda neurotic stuff. Too personal for art. Which is about mind, body and soul, all of humanity. Not ones own desires, fears, and neurosis. Thats academic “art”. And so.

    art collegia delenda est

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