NYU Black Renaissance Noire NYU Black Renaissance Noire V. 16.1 - Page 133

I met Melvin Edwards and his wife, the late poet Jayne Cortez (1934–2012), for the first time in Paris in 2000, the year they acquired their house in Dakar. Since then, I have had the pleasure of conversing with them about art, Africa, the history of black people, and many other topics. In 1970, thanks to a scholarship from the University of Connecticut, Edwards visited Africa for the first time accompanied by Jayne Cortez. The six-week trip took them to Ghana, Togo, Dahomey (today’s Benin), and Nigeria. Since then, they have travelled widely in Africa and built strong relationships with artists, craftsmen, and friends all over the continent. Senegal became their primary choice to settle, and Edwards once explained to me: Our first real stay in Senegal was 1981. We had a very nice week. The notable Senegalese painter, Souleymane Keita, took us around, to the tapestry factory in Thiès, to his home and studio in Gorée. We had Thieboudienne1. That trip was an introduction. (…) Senegal was special, but all Africa has been special. This is not like saying this is the best place or better than others but certainly has everything we need. Other people will go to Paris, which was the place to meet with the young art history. We were interested in traditional and modern life. I became mature and more interested specifically in our culture. The creative people of my generation, we seem to have the same intentions — working in different environments, but the same basic intentions, to improve the world we have inherited, which has its problems and imperfections. Artists might be able to do that.2 I take the airport exit and cross gigantic roundabouts. Taxis, street peddlers, trucks, carts — everyone is trying to get somewhere. I pass the stadium and the Art Village. Driving over and under bridges, I have to concentrate so as not to miss the sliproad that will take me to Grand Yoff, Edwards’ district. One last turn and I finally enter Edwards’ neighborhood. Here, the streets are quiet. Uncontrolled urbanization took over the blueprint of the city. The houses — white, yellow, pink, brown, some tiled — are packed tightly together, avoiding any vacant space. During independence in 1960, Dakar’s population was only 300,000, barely ten per cent of the country’s population. Today, with more than three million inhabitants, almost a quarter of the population of Senegal, Dakar, like many other capitals in Africa, is booming. BLACK RENAISSANCE NOIRE I was born in the United States, but this identity always felt compatible with African life. Naturally, I didn’t know as much until I started travelling to Africa. But my interest in what was happening there was present throughout my life. Together, they have always served a purpose. That purpose is, of course, the mixture of how I think about art. I am trying to develop something new out of old ideas and experiences. (…) Discovering and re-discovering Africa, in the sense of family, in the sense of societies. It’s all part of the modern world. [3] A few kilometers after leaving Diamniadio, I take a sliproad in the direction of Dakar. At this time of day, the highway is empty, but since its opening in 2013, despite local authority controversies and high tolls, it has transformed the landscape and traffic of Dakar and the surrounding regions. Along the road, a myriad of housing programs are flourishing and numerous interchanges, bridges, and railroad crossings have been built, during Abdoulaye Wade’s presidency. 131 Melvin Edwards’ steel sculptures fuse the political with the abstract to address his African American heritage. As a black internationalist, a pan-Africanist, and a prime witness to modernist innovations in the New York art scene from the era of abstract expressionism to the current wave of conceptual art, Melvin Edwards is one of the few African Americans, who has a particularly strong connection with Africa beyond his African origins. He is deeply rooted in Africa, not only because he has a house and a workshop in Senegal, but also because he has visited the country regularly for years. In the booklet for his last exhibition at the Alexander Gray Associates gallery in New York in the autumn of 2014, Edwards stated: