I am prone to a milder form of a disorder Ruskin suffered from, in the throes of which he convinced himself that he detected a hidden order in the random happenings of, say, a certain winter afternoon in Venice. So, on a recent afternoon in the British Museum I made a set of non sequiturs into a meaningful narrative. The sequence began with an anti-climax, a return visit to Nebamun’s tomb, in an obscure corner at the back of the building. I had discovered this wonder two months earlier, thinking it a new installation. Here the vividest wall paintings that survive from ancient Egypt show hunting in a marsh and dancing at a feast, well stocked with reeds, birds, an unexpected cat (every hair of whose fur stands out), plates piled high with food and unclothed dancing girls.
This small room had been my main goal, but now had nothing like the powerful effect of the day when I was the tomb’s discoverer. From this point onward, I was thinking of the exit, gave the Assyrian reliefs a distracted glance and halted only at some scanty fragments from Crete, just because we might be going there.
Then at the end of the corridor leading to the main entrance, an oversized image jumped out. It could have been a brightly lit mural like the mock-ups from Knossos I had just left behind, but in fact it was a projection which kept changing. The technique was bold, assembling flat patches of strong colour, no shading or detail to speak of, to depict violence in strangely satisfying ways.
The effect was very close to children’s cut-outs in colored paper, but a sophisticated feeling for design created exciting spaces in the flatness, as in one where a black man tied to a chair is threatened by white officers brandishing swords who form a web shrinking to a point in the distance. Or as in a troop of soldiers riding straight towards us and closing in on one of their number. It’s evident that these are not paper cut outs but paintings, so the primitive feel is deliberate, more like Picasso than a child. By now I’ve gathered that the traces of eighteenth century dress, and the uniforms with braid consisting of yellow squiggles belong to the story of the Haitian revolution of 1791-1804 and its exotic hero Toussaint l’Ouverture.
The paintings date from 1938 and are late fruits of the Harlem Renaissance. The artist, Jacob Lawrence, had been trained in the art school in Harlem established by the movement, had seen W E B Dubois’ play about Toussaint in 1934 and then researched the subject in the New York Public Library. The series started out as 41 paintings in tempera on paper. It isn’t easy to come by reproductions of the whole set; Lawrence supervised silkscreen prints of 15 of them he considered the best. The painted versions, each only 19 by 11 inches, were used to make the ten huge projections in the British Museum display. They must be something like 9 feet by 5 on the big screen, the size of a large Jackson Pollock, and they support the enlargement brilliantly and become truly heroic images.
In the years just before Lawrence painted them the United States had occupied Haiti for almost twenty years, from 1915 to 1934. Undoubtedly this dark history was in his mind as he meditated on the revolution and its miraculous success 130 years earlier. As another dark moment is in mine, encountering this small exhibition the day after it went up and six weeks after the current American president called Haiti a ‘shithole country’ in the course of an argument against allowing immigrants from such countries to remain.