NYU Black Renaissance Noire NYU Black Renaissance Noire V. 16.1 - Page 135

This new institution, run by the painter Papa Ibra Tall, took the tapestry-making school in Aubusson, France, as its model, but it used what Tall believed to be authentic African themes, colors and designs. (…) As grandiose works, they were positioned as ultimate embodiments of a Negro-African-Aesthetic, and therefore, as the flagship of the École de Dakar. 68 What I am getting at is that it was sculpture that was architecture, that had a function that was important to people. The idea of tapestry in Europe was to keep the cold walls from radiating the cold for people. It was like rugs to insulate the floors. But they made them in beautiful forms. Some were topical stories, or heroes, or people or whatever. And when they developed the contemporary tapestry in Europe [1940-50], Senghor was affected by them. He appreciated modern art, Picasso, other people who took interest in Africa. Then developing a tapestry became a modern idea so he supported its development in Senegal.5 Edwards read extensively about architects like Gaudi, Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Architecture and urban environment have always been fundamental in Edwards’ realizations. For him, creating large-scale works is to make real change to specific public sites. As early as the late sixties, Edwards put into practice his ideas about public art by completing wall paintings. He joined the Smokehouse painters, a group organized for a short period (1968-70) by his comrade in arms, William T. Williams, to paint abstract hard-edge murals on building exteriors in Harlem, New York:6 Edwards explained to me.7 We decided that they would be absolutely abstract. So not like the mural that told people what to do; but murals that actually change the space. Thus, we were doing a real change in urban environment. That’s what I mean by making the space more functional for people, and they can do what they want with it. A good example of that is what happened on 121st and 1st Avenue. It was a small city park that the drug dealers took over. The city never bothered to repair it. We did the walls on this corner, here and there, and we did these two walls, and people started to come back; and the city did the seats. The guys dealing the drugs went somewhere else. It was a wonderful microcosmic idea. The arts can be used to change places, not to decorate, but to change places. Then it has a much more dynamic function. This is when you are building cities; you do it with an aesthetic option. BLACK RENAISSANCE NOIRE While in Senegal, Melvin Edwards has expanded his public artwork to include tapestry and has also developed a close partnership with the Manufactures Sénégalaises des arts décoratifs, the national tapestry factory in Thiés, and its accomplished craftswomen and men in the art of making tapestries. The Manufactures Sénégalaises des arts décoratifs was founded in 1966 by President Léopold Sédar Senghor. Senghor requested that designs for brightly colored tapestries should be chosen from paintings submitted by Senegalese and other African artists. The goal was to experience a modern revival of African artistic traditions and aesthetic in the early years of independence. Elizabeth Harney reminds us: The abstraction style embodied by the École de Dakar was very appealing to Melvin Edwards. In his work, the notion of abstraction contains realities such as the history and oppression of African people that is very perceptible but go beyond this feeling. We can also say in terms of aesthetic that his work itself goes beyond Picasso’s cubism, even though the resonance is visible. This new medium in Melvin Edwards’ career emphasizes the way he experiments with the conceptual and artistic symbiosis between sculpture and tapestry, as envisioned by Léopold Sédar Senghor’s theory of Négritude. In his tapestries, echoing his sculpture, Edwards conceives a new aesthetic vocabulary and redefines the notion of a “black soul” beginning from its African-American history. In so doing, Edwards revisits European tradition and African modernity and helps us look at African heritage with new eyes. He drew his inspiration from the European concept for tapestry: 133 In Dakar, Edwards works with local carpenters, scrap merchants and ironworkers. Introduced by a friend, he began working with the welding company, Youssouf N’Diaye Frères, in Mermoz, a district of Dakar. He bought equipment, which he installed at the welding company’s workshop, and since then, a respectful complicity and steady collaboration with the team unites them. “It is like an extension of my home studio,” he claims.4