Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 28, 2017
H. Ike Okafor-Newsum (Horace Newsum) SoulStirrers: Black Art and the Neo-Ancestral Impulse Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2016. 226 pp.; 137 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9781628462258)

What is Neo-Ancestralism? The phrase invokes heritage and cultural memory, but it also hints at a romanticization of the past. Demetrius L. Eudell tackles this concern in his foreword to SoulStirrers: Black Art and the Neo-Ancestral Impulse, arguing that the turn to the past of the artists documented in the book does not reflect the desire for an impossible return, but rather an interest in the “dynamic invention of new cultural forms” that have emerged from Africa by way of the horrors of the Middle Passage (xii). Over the course of SoulStirrers, H. Ike Okafor-Newsum carefully nuances the concept of Neo-Ancestralism, describing it as the reclamation of a history rooted in African traditions and independent of colonial narratives while still accounting for the complexities of the diaspora by reconciling with the past rather than simply retrieving it. Or, in the words of Ipori Lasana’s Neo-Ancestralist manifesto, “Neo-Ancestralism is an art movement that touches the visceral impulse; it is an honest commentary on African American culture, and how African origins have influenced that culture” (138). As John W. Roberts writes in his introduction, this kind of art making is an “act of memory” (xvi), a creative revisitation of history that uses cultural heritage in order to reimagine the past, present, and future.

SoulStirrers centers on three artists, Tom Phelps, Jimi Jones, and Ken Leslie, who started using the Neo-Ancestralist label in the 1980s at the Third World Gallery, then a haven for black artists in Cincinnati. In 1991 they began sharing a studio in the Linn Street Arts Consortium building, which facilitated their turn to collective production and large-scale installations and exposed their work to the larger Cincinnati arts community. Newsum focuses on these artists because they have worked continuously as Neo-Ancestralists, though he emphasizes that it is an amorphous movement, with different individuals expressing varying levels of affinity over time. Importantly, not all Neo-Ancestralists are visual artists—the core members blend drawing, painting, sculpture, and found-object manipulation, but the larger collective also includes writers, musicians, and performers.

Newsum got to know Phelps, Jones, and Leslie in the wake of the inclusion of Newsum’s installation Strange Fruit/The Crucifix (1994) in the Black Holocaust exhibition on the Ohio State University campus in 1995. Newsum’s work shared the Neo-Ancestralists’ interest in using visual art to engage with the past and confront the present—Newsum describes Strange Fruit as an “artifact of racial memory” (5). The story of how the exhibition brought him together with the Cincinnati artists makes up most of the first chapter. He also uses the chapter to outline the book’s art-historical goal: preservation. SoulStirrers seeks to analyze and document both the Neo-Ancestralist installations, a practice that is context-sensitive and vulnerable to disappearance, and the vernacular forms on which the Neo-Ancestralists rely, which are themselves often fragile and difficult to preserve.

In the second chapter, Newsum more closely examines what he calls the “Neo-Ancestral impulse.” To do so, he turns to the concept of collective memory, which he defines as the unconscious expression of cultural practices that extend across many realms, including the visual, the spiritual, and the musical, and that have been passed down and transformed through generations. This helps Newsum articulate a continuum from specific African sources like the Yoruba concept of Ase (the soul, or life force, that animates many things, including aesthetic expressions) to specific qualities in the works of the Neo-Ancestralists—such as the book’s titular proposal that they are “soul stirrers,” or interested in imbuing a symbolic and spiritual power into the everyday objects with which they build their work—while still allowing for the ruptures, distortions, and syncretic revisions that have emerged out of the processes and traumas of the African diaspora. He also uses this chapter to detail a diasporic intellectual history for the Neo-Ancestralists, going back to the Negro Renaissance, Négritude, and the Negrismo (referred to in Cuba as Afro-Cubanism) movements from the 1920s and 1930s, as well as the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The Black Arts Movement in particular directly influenced the formation of the younger Neo-Ancestralists and was important for helping them develop a black art practice that is both Africa-centric and interested in black diasporic vernaculars. However, the Neo-Ancestralists also challenge some of the more troubling elements of the Black Arts Movement; in chapter 5, Newsum describes how Neo-Ancestralists attempt to elevate black feminism in spite of the relatively few female artists in the group, and how they critique the polarity of aesthetics and politics by emphasizing the fundamentally political nature of representation.

Chapter 3 focuses on the Neo-Ancestralist aesthetic, but it is not the first time that readers get a close look at individual artworks. Throughout the text, Newsum is rigorous about grounding his arguments in specific examples of Neo-Ancestralist art, and the pages are replete with color images of artworks, installation views, and exhibition ephemera, helping to fulfill the book’s commitment to documentation. But the visual is never far from the political for Newsum or his artists. At the beginning of the chapter, he emphasizes that a “devotion to the project of social transformation” (39) is at the heart of the Neo-Ancestralist project; the group explicitly refuses any separation of the formal from the political, social, and/or spiritual. This is evident in the five main visual tropes that Newsum identifies in their work: using pop-culture icons to challenge stereotypes and celebrity culture, blurring divisions between “high” (fine art) and “low” (everyday art) expressions in order to highlight broader social hierarchies, incorporating waste materials to foreground the problems of consumption in postindustrial society, deploying black vernacular expressions to articulate an African cultural continuum in the diaspora, and representing social injustice through images of poverty and racial violence. Newsum uses the bulk of the chapter to describe how these tropes operate in specific objects and images that appear in Neo-Ancestralist installations, focusing on the exhibitions Northern Soul/Southern Blues 1 (1993) and Northern Soul/Southern Blues 2 (1993–94), Disciplines of the Hood (1996), and Neo-Ancestralist Portraits (1997).

Chapter 4 expands out from these visual tropes to describe the Neo-Ancestralist philosophy. Newsum describes two main concerns: an elevation of the African American working class and their creative production, and an interest in African sources and their interactions with diasporic cultures. Throughout the text, Newsum shows how the Neo-Ancestralists reference black popular culture and African American vernaculars, like the yard art of renowned Cincinnati resident James Batchelor; here, Newsum argues that by intermingling academic art approaches with “outsider” forms, the Neo-Ancestralists force the institutional domains of art to confront these practices, thereby destabilizing such hierarchical divisions. And many of the African sources that emerge in Neo-Ancestralist art are also examined through the lens of the African American vernacular. In addition to the direct references to African rituals and objects that Newsum describes, most notably through Leslie’s interest in Yoruba art and spirituality, he identifies an indirect influence in an attention to African American practices like speech rhythms, graveyards, syncretic religions and rituals, hair pageants, and lawn decorations, which themselves emerged from the cultures of West African groups like the Fon, Yoruba, Mande, Igbo, and Bakongo, although this influence has been hidden through the distortions of the slave trade and pressures to culturally assimilate. By threading the Neo-Ancestralists’ interest in African culture through their focus on the African American vernacular, Newsum demonstrates how the artists resist narratives of authenticity or racial essentialism as they draw on their ancestral heritage, using traditional African sources as a counter-hegemonic strategy to assert aesthetic and political legitimacy for diasporic cultures.

The fifth chapter focuses on Bloods: The Neo-Ancestral Impulse in African American Art, a 2003 exhibition Newsum curated at the Shot Tower Gallery in Columbus. Newsum included his own work alongside that of Phelps, Jones, and Leslie, but he describes himself as being interested in Neo-Ancestralism rather than a member of the group, a distinction that lends critical force to his analyses. Shot Tower Gallery is on the grounds of a public high school, and the artists were involved in the show’s educational component, underscoring the group’s longstanding investment in their local contexts; Newsum also emphasizes their parallel investment in postcolonial art and liberation struggles worldwide. He takes the time to discuss each work in the large exhibition, describing themes like the domestic and everyday life, religion and the intersection of African and Christian spirituality, military service (referencing the fact that the gallery is in a Civil War-era building), paying homage to ancestors, the efficacy of art in the pursuit of social justice, and the demand for a critical conversation about race.

Newsum concludes SoulStirrers by meditating on the passing of several peripheral artists during the course of the book project, and renewing his call for better documentation in order to preserve art’s histories. And he returns to the Neo-Ancestralists’ interest in vernacular art and the materials of everyday life, arguing that this is a practice of “inclusiveness and radical transformation” (135) that in its challenge to cultural hierarchies works metaphorically to break down socioeconomic boundaries and strive for social change.

Megan Driscoll
Assistant Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art History, University of Richmond