Richmond Barthe was born in 1901 in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. At a very early age, his mother encouraged his interest in art as she gave him his favorite toys –a pencil and paper. With continued encouragement from his mother, he began drawing people, animals, and insects –winning various prizes recognizing his work. Denied from an art school in New Orleans because of his race, this motivated him to become an artist. Barthe was classically trained at the Art Institute of Chicago. At the institute, Barthe began experimenting with clay through the teachings of Archibald J. Motley and Charles Schroeder. From this experimentation began his interest in working with clay sculptures. His early works with sculpture have been exhibited in a children’s home and in the Negro History Week Exhibition. Following his years at the Art Institute of Chicago, Richmond Barthe moved to New York. This move helped Barthe become prominent in the art world as his work has been featured in an exhibit “at the Arden Galleries in New York” (New Crisis, 36) and recognized by the “New York Press” (a-r-t.com). Richmond Barthe “maintained special interests in racial themes, portraiture, the theater, and religion” (New Crisis, 36) as he “produced sculptures and busts of African Americans” (New Crisis, 36). Art pieces of Barthe’s work can be seen in “the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles and the Schomberg Center in New York” (New Crisis, 36).
This sculpture was created in 1935, standing two feet high. Feral Benga was inspired by Francois Benga, a Senegalese cabaret dancer. Richmond Barthe saw Francois Benga perform during a trip to Paris. Feral Benga represents Barthe’s way of recognizing “all that was interesting and pleasing about blackness” (Vendryes 3). Seeing Benga as an “‘authentic’ African dancer” (Vendryes 3), Barthe is celebrating “aesthetic connections to Africa” (Vendryes 3). The sculpture’s subtle bends symbolizing Benga’s graceful movements from the traditional African dance witnessed by Barthe, encourages African Americans to embrace the beauty of their African roots. During a time when African Americans were taught to ignore their African heritage – as it was seen as inferior and barbaric – the Great Migration represented the proactive response to physically moving away from racial injustices and discouragement to remember their culture. Furthermore, the sculpture idolizes the physical aesthetic of the African body as Richmond Barthe chose to exclude Francois Benga’s clothing. Embracing the African body is another way Barthe encourages African Americans to recognize their heritage –an important aspect reflected in why the Great Migration occurred.
The Negro Looks Ahead
Bronze Cast (1976)
The Negro Looks Ahead is Barthe’s rendition of what looks to be an African American male –although other scholars argue the artwork’s sex is ambiguous – “in mid-thought that expresses the aspirations of an entire community rather than a particular individual” (cartermuseum.org). This interpretation clearly reflects the “big picture” of the Great Migration. African Americans collectively decided as a community of common experiences and thoughts to actively protest against the racial injustice of the South. The “individual” is not a main concern as the Great Migration represents the experience of African Americans as a whole based on their similarities in their reasons for leaving the South. Richmond Barthe wrote in a letter to the New York Public Library staff discussing this sculpture, “ ‘….so I did this piece of the Negro emerging out of his rough background with hope in the future’ ” (cartermuseum.org). Barthe’s own symbolism in creating the piece also reflects ideologies seen in the Great Migration. African Americans were leaving for “hope in the future,” hope to create a new life, hope in racial uplift, and hope to recognize themselves as equal counterparts in American society.