DETAIL: Loïs Mailou Jones (American; 1905–1998). Mère du Senegal, 1985. Acrylic; 24″ x 36″. Courtesy of the Loïs Mailou Jones Pierre-Noël Trust.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
In her 1989 Callaloo interview, Loïs Mailou Jones reflected on the seeds of a career that would span seven decades: “Well, I began with art at a very early stage in my life. As a child, I was always drawing. I loved color. My mother and father … gave me an excellent supply of crayons and paper—and encouraged me.”
Jones was born and raised in Boston, attending both public and private art schools, and eventually graduated, on scholarship, from the Museum of Fine Arts. Her first professional work was in textile design. Although the process was satisfying, she wasn’t able to put her name on her works.
Jones wanted more. “As I wanted my name to go down in history, I realized I would have to be a painter.” (“An Interview with Loïs Mailou Jones,” Callaloo, Vol. 12 No. 2, Spring, 1989. p. 357–378.)
In 1928, Jones left Boston for North Carolina, and founded the art department at The Palmer Memorial Institute. Two years later, she joined the faculty at Howard University, teaching design and watercolor painting for 47 years. Jones was a dedicated educator, and took pride in mentoring her students.
In 1937 she was awarded a fellowship to study in Paris. “This was a defining moment for the young black artist who experienced—for the first time in her life—the complete freedom to live as she wished without the indignities of segregation that she felt in the United States.” (phillipscollection.org)
After her return from Europe, Jones began to employ African-American themes and motifs into her work, partly as a reaction to and influenced by the Harlem Renaissance. In 1953, Jones married Haitian artist Louis Pierre-Noel. She spent a great deal of time in Haiti, absorbing its rhythms and culture, and incorporated them into her work. In 1954 she was a guest of the Haitian government as a visiting artist. She spent hours painting landscapes and the Haitian people, as well as teaching art classes.
“Mine is a quiet exploration—a quest
for new meanings in color, texture and design. Even
though I sometimes portray scenes of poor and
struggling people, it is a great joy to paint.”
Loïs Mailou Jones (1905–1998)
In 1980 Jones received an award from President Jimmy Carter for outstanding achievement in the arts and, more recently, the 2009 Mint Museum retrospective, Loïs Mailou Jones: A Life in Vibrant Color, toured the United States. Perhaps writer Michael O’Sullivan said it best in his 2010 Washington Post review of the exhibit, “The enduring power of color—both in Jones’ paint and in her life—shines through.”
(See article about the exhibition, which appeared in the October 2011 issue of Arts & Activities: pubdev.ipaperus.com/ArtsandActivities/AAOctober2011/?page=20)
ABOUT THE ARTWORK
This month’s Art Print, Mère du Senegal (Mother of Senegal) was painted in 1985, in what is concerned Loïs Mailou Jones’ “late” career. “Jones’ long career may be divided into four phases: the African-inspired works of the early 1930s, French landscapes, cityscapes, and figure studies from 1937 to 1951, Haitian scenes of the 1950s and 1960s, and the works of the past several decades that reflect a return to African themes.” (americanart.si.edu)
Mère du Senegal is characterized by the bright color and bold pattern that Jones, by 1985, had been known for decades. The central image, one of a mother braiding a child’s hair, is at once powerful and intimate. Jones’ early career as a textile designer is apparent here. Both the left and right sides of the composition are “decorated” in traditional West African patterns that simultaneously frame the action, add visual interest, and celebrate Senegalese culture.
The choice to backlight the mother with vivid yellow and orange creates a kind of halo effect, elevating this humble woman to an almost spiritual status.
“This painting is as tender a ‘mother and child’ as any artist from time immemorial has painted, but it’s an Afrocentric take on the milieu. Look at the decorative elements in the back and then the triptych of color she’s used—akimbo—to back the figures.” (Kent L. Boyer. DallasArtNews.com)
To this mother, who works her strong hands through her child’s hair, the task is not a chore, but a joy.
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From The March 2016 Issue Of Arts & Activities
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