by Rebecca VanDiver. Penn State University Press, October 2020. 256 p. ill. ISBN 9780271086040 (h/c), $59.95.
Reviewed March 2021
Lynora Williams, Library Director, Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center/National Museum of Women in the Arts, email@example.com
Loïs Mailou Jones (1905-1998), daughter of Boston’s Black middle class, doggedly forged a career in art that spanned more than seven decades. Her work traversed varied cultural expressions of Black identity, from the New Negro approaches of the Harlem Renaissance to the uncompromising boldness of the Black Arts Movement.
Jones began her art career as a textile designer but began her move away from that path after visiting a New York City textile studio and seeing her own, uncredited, textile design on the studio’s showroom furniture. After she spent a brief stint as an art teacher at the Palmer Memorial Institute, a North Carolina secondary school, Howard University recruited Jones to teach in its new art department. She became a leader in the Washington, DC, art community and mentored many of the twentieth century’s most recognized artists. She remained a Howard professor until her 1977 retirement.
Designing a New Tradition: Loïs Mailou Jones and the Aesthetics of Blackness, with its eighty-eight plates showcasing Jones’s work from adolescence to the twilight of her artistic production, examines three phases of Jones’s career. The second phase was profoundly influenced by her experiences in Haiti; her later work reflects the impact of her travels to African countries.
VanDiver argues that through immersion in the art worlds of Paris, Haiti, and West Africa, Jones came to see Black identity “in triplicate,” embracing the African American, African, and Afro-diasporic experience, and developing a distinctive grammar for the expression of these themes.
This monograph not only elevates Jones but is a valuable contribution to the discourse on the visual articulation of Black identity in the twentieth century. Designing a New Tradition should be included in a variety of art history collections, including those with a focus on women artists, Black artists, and the arts histories of Boston and Washington, DC.
The greatest accolades for Jones came late in her life, when she won presidential recognition, prestigious awards, and a solo exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Until then, Jones had been sandwiched in the middle – of communities, class, artistic and aesthetic trends, and political outlooks – and was subject to the particular exclusion experienced by African American women artists. These forces, VanDiver contends, prevented her from garnering the critical acclaim and examination her work warrants. Designing a New Tradition, however, is a welcome corrective.