Napoleon Jones-Henderson’s “I Am As I Am — A Man,” just opened at the Institute of Contemporary Art, is a tight edit of a more than half-century’s work. He has been making his colorful, purposeful tapestry and quilt works since the 1960s; his Roxbury house is legendarily chock-full. At the ICA, just short of two dozen have been plucked from that life’s pursuit, a slimness that opens the artist’s oeuvre only a crack. Still, you have to start somewhere — though he’s taught generations of artists at MassArt, Emerson, and Roxbury Community College, this is his first solo exhibition in a museum here — and one of the best things about it is that it leaves you wanting more.
Jeff De Blois, the ICA curator who shepherded the show into being, fashions a full arc into the abbreviated offering, from Jones-Henderson’s beginnings in his hometown of Chicago in the 1960s right up to the here and now. (He moved to Boston in 1974 to teach textile weaving at MassArt and has been here ever since.) The first of three galleries here encapsulates his Chicago years; in 1969, he joined AfriCOBRA, the “African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists,” a group of artist-activists eager to define a contemporary Black aesthetic in the midst of roiling social change.
Jones-Henderson was an artist primed for the moment. In the early 1960s, he’d studied art history at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he became acutely aware of the deliberate narrowness of the European worldview. Back home, he went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he met Else Regensteiner, who had founded the school’s weaving department. Regensteiner’s own work was largely rigid and spare, fashioned after that of her mentor, Anni Albers. She had studied with Albers at Black Mountain College, the experimental North Carolina art school that provided haven to German artists and intellectuals fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s and ‘40s.
But Regensteiner’s mastery of the form ignited something primal in Jones-Henderson about the extreme tactile immediacy of fabric and yarn. While at the school, he joined AfriCOBRA and put his newfound sense of purpose to immediate use. The nascent, national Black Arts movement was rising as the civil rights era gave way to Black Power; in Chicago, a hotbed of the movement, AfriCOBRA was at the fore. Its 1969 manifesto declared its mission “to preach positivity to the people,” a spirit borne out in the group’s embrace of vibrant color. (At the ICA last week, Jones-Henderson, bright and ebullient, joked that Kool-Aid with its unreal hues was an aesthetic touchpoint. “You could tell what flavor someone was drinking by the color of their tongue,” he said and laughed.)
He had a close partnership in AfriCOBRA with Barbara Jones-Hogu, a printmaker, translating her poster pieces into elaborately-woven tapestries. One of those, “TCB,” from 1970, is what greets you at the ICA, a dazzlingly psychedelic tangle of color, image, and text. The piece exhorts jubilance with an undertone of menace: “be free,” it reads, the text embedded in the cranium of a man with fiery eyes; below, it finishes the thought: “Come together to learn to defend us.”
Radical positivity leavened with a stern dose of reality only made sense. These were not carefree times. AfriCOBRA came together in a moment of national trauma; the year it formed, Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered, shaking the civil rights movement with outrage and grief. In the group’s hometown of Chicago later that same year, the Democratic National Convention devolved into chaos, highlighting the divisions of racial animus in the party and culminating in a violent police crackdown on antiwar protestors. Jones-Henderson’s missile-shaped “AmeriKKK,” a weaving from 1974, feels like a mirror to a darkening moment, whatever optimism the 1960s had engendered now fully spent: Skulls hover over the red-and-white stripes of the flag, and its stars are refashioned as a mob of white hooded robes with pinpricks for eyes.
That work roots Jones-Henderson in formative experience, but the long arc of his career illuminates it as only a starting point. His work tracks alongside Black American experience with a mind toward justice, but also joy. Music is a key touchstone. In the second room, icons like the Blind Boys of Alabama and Duke Ellington are paid homage in individual works fashioned in wood, copper, and enamel paint, each with a flourish of fabric; Thelonius Monk, in a piece from 1987, is woven flat in wool and steel yarn, a shimmering mystic in vibrant hues of violet and pink.
Here, we’re privy to a moment of material revelation: Not long after moving to Boston, Jones-Henderson did the rounds of old textile mills throughout New England, looking to build the specific dynamic of his new environment into his work. With the region being the historic heart of the textile industry, he didn’t have to go far. In Providence, he came across a trove of metallic yarns that would be the vehicle of his evolving career — “shine,” as he described it, “the aesthetic of African people.” The yarn had been made for flappers in the 1920s, he said, but the glint and shimmer informed what he wanted to achieve. He showed up with a truck and took all of it; he still has plenty today.
An emblematic work from 1976 uses it to vital effect: “A Few Words from the Prophet Stevie,” a dizzying tableau based on Stevie Wonder’s plaintive 1974 song “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” which raged at President Richard Nixon as a proxy for stalled progress on racial equity. The piece gathers up millennia of Black experience to land in a fractious moment: African faces in glittering profile look from east to west to a land where hope, however strangled, refuses to die.
Most moving, at least for me, is the final gallery, which Jones-Henderson has titled “Requiem.” Here, Jones-Henderson’s work blossoms fully into three dimensions with a trio of shimmering totems, lavishly beautiful, with grave and noble presence. Each is roughly human height and topped with dollhouse-size shacks; below them drape a patchwork of multicolored fabric swaths, cascading to the ground. One, a tribute to James Baldwin, was only finished in the hours before the museum came to collect it, the artist said.
The fabric, Jones-Henderson says, is meant to mirror ceremonial Nigerian robes, worn in dance to honor ancestors and gather their spirits in their twirl and flow. On top of each, Jones-Henderson has built a place to rest for the spirits of a specific few: One for Baldwin, the fierce and compassionate writer; one for June Jordan, the poet and activist; and one for Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair, the four young girls killed in the bombing of a Birmingham church in 1963. Jones-Henderson means them not only as a tribute, but a safe haven. He imparts upon them an enduring dignity and grace, past the rage and tumult that marked their lives. Here, in his hands, they only shine.
NAPOLEON JONES-HENDERSON: I AM AS I AM — A MAN
Through July 24. Institute of Contemporary Art Boston, 25 Harbor Shore Drive. 617-478-3100, icaboston.org
Murray Whyte can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.