At this moment in time, the notion of crowds in often a tendentious topic. Since the dust of the global pandemic has settled, our lives and habits have adapted to necessary measures such as working from home and social distancing. So much so that we often find ourselves in a constant state of turbulence whilst watching that new TV show or original film on Netflix – worlds apart from the one we are currently navigating – where fictional characters lead fictional lives without masks or lockdowns. With this in mind, I would like to draw your attention to the African American artist Archibald Motley. His stylised series of Chicago party-scenes – which includes paintings such as Blues, 1929 and Hot Rhythm, 1961 –promote the elation and vibrancy of the African American experience during the Chicago black renaissance. Paying close attention to Motley’s most celebrated work Nightlife1943, let us consider how he utilises the motif of crowds in order to promote community and escapism in defiance of social, political and cultural suppression.
Within an initial glance at Nightlife, we are instantly exposed to the feeling of community. The artificial pink hue drenches the interior space of a blue’s bar which immediately establishes an undisclosed sense of unity. Our gaze intuitively gravitates towards the forming gap within the crowd – between the dancefloor and the bar – as Motley’s dynamic configuration implicitly summons us into the interior space of the buzzing jazz cabaret. The lit cigarette – that hangs from the hand of the nonchalant gentlemen at the bar – guides our visual curiosity deeper into the softly lit imagine space where the interconnected bodies of partygoers become indexical to the energy within the bar. The viewer is overcome by the rhythmic and infectious movement of the angular limbs, gleaming martini glasses and syncopated bodies. It is almost as if we can hear the Bepop from the omniscient jazz band playing somewhere beyond the crowd of revellers.
Upon closer inspection into the historical context of Nightlife, we learn how the euphoric painting of pleasure-seekers dancing into the night clearly demonstrates escapist undertones. During the 1930s and 40s the neighbourhood of Bronzeville in Chicago was home to 90% of the city’s African American population who like Motley’s family moved North from southern states in search of economic opportunity and freedom from racism. Although they had escaped the unjust severity of racism in the South, racial prejudice was demonstrated through social matters such as strict housing policies. Nevertheless, the stylised black bodies portrayed in Motley’s Nightlifeprevail from such racial discrimination. An act of true transcendence, it is as if Nightlife is suspended in time where the black partygoer’s triumph by endlessly and aimlessly dancing into the early hours of the morning within the solace of the jazz cabaret.
It is undeniable that our timelines, newsfeeds and screens have been saturated with the negativity of crowds or their lack of. Far-right extremists storming the US capitol, antiauthoritarian protests in Russia against, Dutch protests against the implantation of a national curfew and the second cancellation of Glastonbury festival due to the Corona virus pandemic. However, alike the solace which the African American partygoers of Motley’s crowd paintings find within the imagined interiors of Chicago jazz bars, we too must remain mindful and find solace within the safety of our homes during lockdown. I would like to conclude by drawing our attention to a particular quote by Motley: “I feel that my work is peculiarly American; a sincere personal expression of the age and I hope a contribution to society.” Here, Motley signposts his desires for his artwork to contribute towards amending the racial segregation within American society. From our historical viewpoint, I believe that Motley’s crowd series demonstrate a newfound agency. As we currently stand within the UK’s third national lockdown, may the communal escapism of the African American revellers within Motley’s crowd series positively influence our society to transcend the gloom and suppression of lockdown; instead, may they function as visual reminders of more vibrant times to come in the future.
By Finlay Lander
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