Archibald John Motley, Jr.: Issues of Race

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  • Topic: African American, Black people, Race
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  • Published : January 28, 2008
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Archibald John Motley, Jr.: Issues of Race

Archibald John Motley, Jr. (1891-1981) saw first hand the negative stereotypes placed upon African Americans that had been endured since times of slavery. Therefore, he realized the invocative power of images within a culture. Motley then began his quest to transform America's stereotypical Negro perspective. In spite of his honorably proclaimed goals, "there is still a hint of [racial] exclusion reflected in his life and his work…" (Leath, 2). Motley's apparent issues with race are what this paper shall attempt to explore. The 1925 portrait, The Octoroon Girl, and 1922's Octoroon, are two of several portraits painted of mulatto women by Motley. They possess a dignified air, distinguished dress, and have very attractive European facial features. They are certainly not representative of the African American majority—part of the exception not the ‘rule'. These paintings serve as documentation of two specific things: America's history of miscegenation, and obsession with race. Motley's personal fixation with skin color, linked to issues of class and decent, never strayed far from his artwork. Motley shows this in his 1920 Self Portrait, where his "frank and direct gaze, his highlighted forehead, and his ‘aristocratic' emphasized nose," are evidence of, "his physiognomic association of class with physical features" (Leath, 4). However, as Patton makes clear, Motley's images "of fair-skinned women in middle-class settings denoting affluence, education and cosmopolitanism, were a visual rebuttal to the popular media images of the ‘mammy' or the ‘jezebel' of black American women which continued to hold a place in the minds of the majority of Americans" (Patton, 123). Though it is important to recognize this refutation against the views of the popular majority, one must remember the number of incredibly stereotypical thoughts regarding African Americans that were supported by Motley's work. Motley claimed his purpose was to combat such stereotypes as suspicious, ignorant or shady Negroes, and the Southern cotton-picker slave that was so popular in genre painting of the past, and replace them with representations of the progressive, intelligent, and dignified Negro. However he incorporates and seems to support the "darky" stereotype at times. Take for example his pieces The Liar, 1936, and The Plotters, 1933. Here Motley portrays the lower class, degenerate, un-evolved "darky". He outfits the subjects of these works with slightly exaggerated faces—almost to a point of looking like ‘blackface' makeup. They are suspicious looking drinkers and smokers, cast in dim shadows possessing a "film noir" type quality about them. Very much like an audience trying to decipher an underlying plot, the images compel the viewer to attempt to figure out the heist being planned. These black men are stereotyped much like black men of today would be in the same situation—seen as being devious and scheming. Motley once stated, "There is nothing borrowed, nothing copied, just an unraveling of the Negro soul. So, why should the Negro painter mimic that which the white man is doing, when he has such an enormous colossal field practically all his own; portraying his people, historically, dramatically, hilariously, but honestly, The Negro in Art" (Estes, 1). Though he pushed all African American artists to create work in accordance to African American subject matter, not in the standard set by the white man, Motley once wrote, " ‘Give the [artist] of the Race a chance to express himself in his own individual way, but let him abide by the principles of true art, as our [white] brethren do, and we shall have a great variety of art, great art, and not a monotony of degraded art' " (Leath, legacy 1). Motley's contradictory words evoke a sense of being "in limbo." It is as if he wants so badly to connect with a part of his own culture—one in which he has no real emotional ties, only...
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