AQUINNAH — The sea sparkles brightly in Loïs Mailou Jones’s 1940 painting of the view from atop the cliffs of Aquinnah, at the far western tip of the island we call Martha’s Vineyard. She called it “Indian Shops, Gay Head, Massachusetts,” which isn’t quite right anymore. In 1998, the town of Gay Head became Aquinnah, named for the Wampanoag tribe who lives here, and whose roots on the island stretch back millennia (not to mention ”Indian” where Native Americans are concerned, a term as outdated as “Gay Head” itself). And the tacked-together shacks Jones painted — one of them built to resemble a teepee — are also gone, replaced by a cluster of low-slung cedar-shingled buildings occupied by Aquinnah businesses. One of them, a busy family restaurant, has a view from its cliff-top deck that drops the jaw. Over the 10,000 years of Wampanoag presence here, at least that much hasn’t changed. That’s why Jones’s sunny piece compels.
Jones was in her mid-30s when she painted it, on her annual summer sojourn to the island from Washington, D.C., where she taught at Howard University. Born in Boston in 1905, Jones is one of those rare figures whose history gives you hope, a sparkle of light in an often ugly world. Jones was a Black artist in an industry overtly hostile to her ambitions, an artist whose accomplished career stands as testament to both her talent and her determination. Even the painting’s history speaks volumes: Jones had a white friend drop it off at the 50th annual Society of Washington Artists exhibition in 1941, to conceal her race. When the painting won the Robert Woods Bliss prize for landscape, Jones accepted the award by mail. “I felt it was best to hold my niche, win several awards, and then appear — all to be sure that I would be accepted,” she told Callaloo journal in 1989. (As a last laugh, she donated the painting in 1997 to Washington’s Corcoran Gallery, which hosted the 1941 awards. It’s now in the collection of The National Gallery of Art.)
On the island, Jones’s family was part of a robust Black community who found reprieve there from routine racism on the mainland. Jones’s grandmother had acquired a small piece of land with money earned as a housekeeper and nanny. Determination must have run in the family: Jones’s mother was a beautician, and her father worked as a building superintendent while going to night school at Suffolk University, becoming the school’s first Black law graduate when he was 40 years old.
As their fortunes improved, Jones’s family was able to build a small house on the island, just as the Black community started to blossom. In 1943, the writer Dorothy West moved there and became a chronicler of Black life as a writer for the Vineyard Gazette. Oak Bluffs was the center of the community, she wrote in her 1995 memoir, “a fair land where equality was a working phrase.”
Jones would retreat to the island with that sense of freedom almost every year until she died in 1998 at age 92. Her career was wide and worldly: She attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, which led to her first teaching job at Palmer Memorial Institute in North Carolina. She founded the art department there, but also coached basketball, taught folk dancing, and was the church pianist. Her talent, and her energy, eventually caught the notice of Howard, the country’s most prestigious Black college, which recruited her in 1930 (she remained on the faculty until 1977). There, she would train generations of Black artists like Alma Thomas, Elizabeth Catlett and David Driskell, all while building her own reputation as an artist of voracious and broad interests. She spent a year studying painting in Paris, and would travel to Haiti and Africa, where her aesthetic cues would deepen and become more diverse.
She came upon the shops at Aquinnah not long after returning from her 1937 sabbatical in France, and the painting shows those influences with expressive brushwork, luminous contrast, and shadows carved sharply by the sun. (Curator Trevor Fairbrother, who included the painting in the exhibition “Painting Summer in New England” at the Peabody Essex Museum in 2006, wrote that “she openly delighted in the Cubist inflections she had learned during her recent studies in Paris.”)
But this is a picture whose many layers unfold before different eyes. When I showed it to Elizabeth James Perry, a prominent Aquinnah artist who lives near Dartmouth, Mass., she couldn’t contain a burst of delight. “Oh! Wow!” she said. “I want to show this to my mom. She’ll remember this.”
Perry was full of stories; her grandfather, a World War I veteran, grew up at Gay Head and would have known the scene well. The shops in Jones’s paintings were seasonal, Perry explained. In days gone by, Aquinnah tribal members would sell enough pottery and trinkets over a summer to put themselves through college. (“Though I can’t imagine how much pottery you’d have to sell to get through college these days,” she said with a laugh.)
Perry was acutely aware of the value structure that governed those shops. “I just think people are raised from before they can speak to think that anything anybody non-white does is primitive, is lesser than — that it should be sold cheaply, that’s it’s not for keeping,” she said. I think you’re right to hear an echo between Perry’s words and Jones’s stealthy entry to painting competitions years before. There’s a resonance between the painting and its subjects, defined by mistreatment by the dominant culture.
Whatever landscape painting tries to convey, it inevitably features the land. In North America, that’s a window into a history of the brutality of colonialism itself. Everything in Jones’s Gay Head scene — the sandy cliffs, the miles of beaches and shimmering seas — was originally called Noepe, home to the Wampanoag for thousands of years when English explorers made landfall in the 1500s and renamed it Martha’s Vineyard in 1602. What came next was a transformation so quick and brutal it bends the mind, with Noepe’s lands carved up and parceled out to settlers in a matter of decades.
In 1987, after years of negotiation, the Aquinnah tribe achieved recognition under the Federal Settlement Act, under which the US government holds 477 acres on the island in a trust controlled by the tribe. But the perch in Jones’s painting, high atop cliffs considered sacred by the tribe’s ancestors, is owned by the town; the Aquinnah businesses there lease the space.
That makes land and the notion of ownership a dense legal tangle. So Perry works with the aspects of her culture more readily at hand. As a child, she was enthralled by her elders’ traditional practices of basket-making and beadwork. Her work today is an expression of an ancient culture alive and well in the here and now. As a larger project of reclamation, Perry’s art lays claims to sovereignty embedded in that culture, and what endures as an expression of a people through generations of colonial violence and dispossession of lands. It is rooted in place, and runs deeper than title or deed. Her intricate shell-carved beadwork and dye technique flows from millennia of traditional practice, where patterns and designs were integral to tribal storytelling, ceremony, and treaties. Its material — quahog and conch shell — is as old as Noepe itself.
Looking again at Jones’s painting, you see the context behind Perry’s notion — that Indigenous craft was written off as trinketeering, throwaway. It points to something Perry and Jones share: A lifelong battle against the devaluation of their art, based solely on the color of their skin.
There’s another point of communion between Perry and Jones: Perry is a direct descendant of Jonathan Cuffe, brother of the well-known Paul Cuffe a Black-Wampanoag man who was one of the leaders of the 18th-century back-to-Africa movement (their father, Kofi Slocum, was a freed slave; their Wampanoag mother was named Ruth Moses). Jonathan married a Wampanoag woman, Hepzibah Occouch, whose parents were among the Aquinnah leadership at Gay Head. On Noepe, Perry has strong ties to the land around Occouch Pond, owned by her ancestors; the resonance with Jones’s painting only deepens. “We’re old, old cultures,” Perry said. “We’re sophisticated cultures. Our values, of family and community, in spite of truly awful treatment by outsiders, have shone through. And I think, when my ancestors got together, there was a kinship there.”
I don’t know what Jones was looking for when she went to those cliffs that sunny summer day 80 years ago. I know she saw the sunlight glinting off the waves, the light charging the high clouds with a luminous glow. But I like to think she also saw the shops and their shopkeepers as more than angles and forms and shadow and light, a visual anchor for her sea and sky. I feel like she saw that kinship, a link between values and cultures in a world that did its best to quash them. “There’s a value in looking at people as human beings, and understanding we have common threads to our stories,” Perry said. “Culture gives you connection, and continuity, in spite of all the hardships.”
Murray Whyte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.