from Beauty Rites: Towards an Anatomy of Culture in African American Women's Art
published in The International Review of African American Art
Volume 12, Number 4 [pages 11-53]
by Judith Wilson

In this context, a 1980 collage and cut-paper-on-wall work by Sandra Payne seems particularly iconoclastic. The centerpiece of an exhibition inspired by the artist's contact with "a colony of psychics in Florida," Payne's Formula for Mme. C. J. Walker's Satin Tress Crème Press reflects "her conviction that the individual must act as his/her own shaman. Thus, she chose to celebrate Walker as an avatar of transformation, a woman whose metamorphosis from poor laundress to wealthy grand dame rivaled the alchemy of her hair products. By focusing on this aspect of Walker's legacy, Payne homes in on the ontological principle [of] traditional African thought [which] manifests virtue by advertising human effort insofar as it involves cultivating, protecting or improving upon what is given.

By the late 1980s, a sea change had occurred in U.S. culture. During the 1950s and 60s desire for social change was usually channeled into politics of inclusion that left existing sociocultural structures unchallenged. In painting, for example, a Bob Thompson or a Barkley Hendricks asserted African American identity by injecting mainstream stylistic modes with black imagery and thematic content. By the 1970s the limits of such assimilationist strategies were clear to certain black artists, who eschewed canonical modes and sought to discover or invent new approaches. Adrian Piper's attempts to explore subject/object relations in a wide range of art forms, David Hammons' experments with the use of materials that put a distinctly African American spin on nonrepresentational sculpture, and Sandra Payne's doubly coded symbolism in which private language alludes to culturally specific allegory-all point to an interest in bypassing mere participation in regnant art discourses in order to initiate new ways of seeing. Such activities set the stage for developments in the next two decades, during which African American artists would foreground distinctive features of African American life to an unprecedented degree. [ Back to About Sandra Payne » ]