Designing a New Tradition: Rebecca VanDiver & Her Monograph of Loïs Mailou Jones
Vanderbilt faculty and staff are actively engaged in the production of art and its critical analysis. For our spring 2023 newsletter, we want to highlight the research of art historian and associate professor Rebecca VanDiver. She met with us last semester to discuss her book Designing a New Tradition: Loïs Mailou Jones and the Aesthetics of Blackness (Pennsylvania State University Press 2020), which provides a critical analysis of the art and career of African American painter Loïs Mailou Jones (1905-1998). VanDiver examines Jones’s engagement with African and Afrodiasporic themes, the influence of travel on her art, and the larger shifting conceptions of blackness, with which the changes in her art styles and subject matter coincide. Designing a New Tradition is a finalist for the 2023 James A. Porter Book Award.
Please note that this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Claire Campbell (Office for Arts & Libraries): I would love to begin our discussion by hearing how you first became interested in Loïs Mailou Jones. And how would you describe the intentions of your book Designing a New Tradition?
Rebecca VanDiver: As I start to think about what introduced me to Jones, I recognize how it is fitting that I am teaching my African American Art survey (HART 2750) course this semester. In this survey, we talk about Loïs Mailou Jones, her participation in the Global Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s, and her career as a professor at Howard University from the 1930s to the 1970s. I say to the students that I first met her and her artwork when I was an undergraduate sitting in a similar class. It’s fascinating to me that an artist I saw briefly flit across the screen as an undergraduate would end up being someone on whom I would write an entire book. We don’t always consider how the material that we engage with at the start of our education can have a long-lasting impact.
While I was an undergraduate student, I first saw Loïs Mailou Jones’s 1938 painting entitled Les Fétiches (Smithsonian American Art Museum), depicting African masks. It always intrigued me. When I was in graduate school at Duke University, I began to think critically about African American artists’ engagements with Africa and, in particular, African art objects. I returned to Loïs Mailou Jones’s Les Fétiches, and I became interested in trying to understand how she came to paint that work. I began by looking into her prior exposure or understanding of “Africa” and African art before 1938 when the work was painted. Then, I researched her post-1938 understanding and continued exploration of Africa, its distinct countries, and art.
That was the initial start of my project. Then, I was fortunate to spend time in the archives of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, which is home to Loïs Mailou Jones's papers. It was in that library basement where I came to know her in a more nuanced capacity as an artist, professor, and person, which the final book reflects. Designing a New Tradition looks at her career and artistic production that constantly engaged with themes related to the African diaspora, exploring how her engagement with the diaspora evolves as she becomes more educated—she travels to France, Haiti, and Africa, and makes friends with members of the Negritude movement. What we see is that her engagement with the African diaspora moves away from the idea of Africa as a monolith and towards an understanding that different countries and cultural groups have their distinct cultural traditions.
The book, additionally, considers how we as scholars, art historians, Humanists, deal with individuals that are in the middle, meaning in the case of Jones an artist who is not part of the Avant-Garde or the cutting edge aesthetically. The middle also resonates as a framework because Loïs Mailou Jones is in the middle of many important places, teaching at Howard and traveling in Paris at important cultural moments and occupying a middle-class position socio-economically. Artists in this middle position, despite not making the most aesthetically cutting-edge art, nonetheless are navigating their position in important ways. Therefore, part of the book intends to advocate or argue for a methodology that considers middle-of-the-pack artists.
CC: I would like to hear more about your research process. What was your experience like working at Howard University’s Moorland-Spingman Research Center? Where else did the research lead you?
RV: I was fortunate that Jones kept meticulous records of her career and life, which she gave to Howard University and are now in the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. Her extensive record-keeping speaks to an understanding that she needed to take control of her narrative and not rely on someone else to be documenting that history for her. I spent about a full year in the archives at Howard University, trying to read through all her letters, make sense of her index cards, and look through the catalog of all books in her library. I poured through the university’s course catalogs to see what classes she was offering every semester. I was trying to get into her brain. What was she reading and looking at? What was she teaching? A lot of the research process was seeing and assessing her archive; taking and then sitting with the materials; and rereading it and thinking about what threads I could tease out. These threads first came together in my dissertation, and then, I reconfigured and expanded on them for the book.
Working on the book also involved getting image permissions, which are a critically important part of an illustrated book. Designing a New Tradition is fortunate to have many of Jones’ paintings reproduced in color. These images help people see her use of color and the vibrancy of her paintings. Securing image permissions can be a time-consuming and expensive effort, so I am grateful to the College of Arts & Sciences Dean's Office here at Vanderbilt for providing generous subvention support and to my home department, History of Art and Architecture, for additional funds so that I could publish images in color. I was also fortunate that the project received a Millard Meiss Publication Grant from The College Art Association.
CC: Few other books—I believe one biography and one exhibition retrospective—have been written on Jones. How do you feel that your work complements or conflicts with these extant texts?
RV: In 1994, the late Dr. Tritobia Hayes Benjamin, a faculty member at Howard University, wrote The Life and Art of Loïs Mailou Jones. It is a groundbreaking text and the first “book” on Jones. Having been written nearly thirty years ago, I think my book expands significantly on her work. Then, the retrospective of Jones’s works, A Life in Vibrant Color, was part of a traveling exhibition from the Mint Museum of Art, running from November 2009 through February 2010. It was a significant curatorial endeavor that brought together a variety of Jones's paintings from public and private collections as well as scholarly essays by the esteemed art historians Cheryl Finley and Lowery Stokes Sims.
Designing a New Tradition is a scholarly monograph, having been published by a university press, meant to help Jones claim her rightful place on the library shelf, a place where so many of her male contemporaries already have multiple monographic treatments. This book joins a significantly growing corpus of single-artist studies that focus on Black women artists from the 19th and 20th centuries. I see my work as part of a lineage of scholarship on Jones that began with Tritobia Hayes Benjamin, and I hope that other scholars will be able to take up where I left off and that we will see other texts that tackle various aspects of Jones's life and career.
CC: Art history publications seem to be shifting away from monographs and single-artist biographies, so what led to your decision to focus on Jones individually?
RV: There is a distinct lack of scholarship on Black women artists in the form of single-artist studies. Examples include Renée Ater’s work Remaking Race and History: The Sculpture of Meta Warrick Fuller (University of California Press) and Kirsten Pai Buick’s book Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subjects (Duke University Press).
I think that there is currently an interest in producing art historical scholarship that is thematic and multi-artist focused. Those books are great, and I love to read them. I am writing one right now, so I understand the appeal. However, I think that the stories of Black women artists, in particular, are often collapsed. A single artist study lets you cover their full life and career. It is a way to open up new avenues of inquiry into their work and the specific circumstances they encountered. For instance, I kept reading about Jones taking a position at Howard in 1930 and teaching there until 1977. These milestones kept being repeated without elaboration. In my book, I had space to unpack her experiences while in this position. For example, even though she's at a Historically Black College and University, she faced a significant amount of gender discrimination. She was not promoted or raised alongside her male colleagues. I had space to open up this narrative and room to explore what it was like to be a faculty member at Howard, which is only possible in a single artist study.
CC: You wrote in the book’s introduction that one of the hurdles in writing on a single artist was the desire to make comparisons to other artists but not wanting “to read Jones’s praxis through that of her male colleagues.” Can you speak more to that challenge?
RV: Comparative analysis is the bread and butter of art history. I mean, how many slide comparison exams are written, right? Comparison enables us to articulate similarities and differences and trace stylistic evolution. When you ask a scholar to do a comparative analysis of African American female artists active in the 20th century, they are almost always pitted against male artists, since there are fewer women active. And the men they are compared to are frequently more well-known by the public and in their time.
Some comparisons occur throughout the book, but I wanted Jones’s art and life to stand on their own. I make the argument, successfully I think, that it is possible to see Jones on her own, literally designing a new tradition for herself as the title suggests. I hoped that limiting the comparative examples allowed her story to come through and not in constant competition with the male artists. I had multiple conversations with my editor, who completely understood why I did not want to read Jones’s work through her male contemporaries. I am hopeful that it is a model for other scholars working on female artists to push back a little bit on the usual comparisons.
Rebecca VanDiver (Harvard College, A.B. and Duke University, M.A., Ph.D.) is an associate professor in the History of Art department of Vanderbilt University and affiliated faculty with the program in American Studies and Department of African American and Diaspora Studies. She teaches courses on Modern/Contemporary African American and African art and visual culture. Her research focuses on 20th century Black women artists and more recently the use of ephemeral print in African American Art.
To learn more about VanDiver and her research, be sure to check her website. She is participating in two lecture series with Harvard University and Columbia University this semester. Earlier this month, she spoke on Loïs Mailou Jones as part of Harvard University’s New Directions in Art History Lecture Series. Later this semester, she will present “How to Design a New Tradition: Placemaking in the Art and Career of Loïs Mailou Jones” as part of Columbia University’s Bettman Lecture series on April 23, 2023.