The Ascent of Ethiopia
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The Ascent of Ethiopia is a 1932 painting by Lois Mailou Jones. This painting tells the story of a journey of African Americans who, through years of sacrifice, have established a heritage built on their trials and tribulations. This story displays how they pride themselves on their accomplishments and achievements. Indirectly, it reveals how these people have struggled to make it in a society that is different from their norm. From the time they lived in Africa until their journey to America beginning the fight to reach their artistic and intellectual peaks, Jones depicts this story by using certain elements of design, line, color, and space. The works she created throughout her life tell the story of many different cultures. In this painting she chooses to represent her own culture. As Tritobia Benjamin, a student of Jones states, “Jones and others employed the portrait as a means of conveying profound respect for their race” (25).
As described in the online article “Focus on the Slave Trade”, African Americans have not always had the same rights as other ethnicites throughout the United States, because in the beginning around the 17th century the ancestors of African Americans were traded in an agreement called the Atlantic slave trade ( “Focus on the Slave Trade”). Unlike other countries slavery in America was based solely on race. They were sold and forced to journey to the United States with their Caucasian counterparts. There they were abused slaves and remained in this position until approximately 1865, when the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery all over the U.S, even though the northern cities did away with slavery several years before, (“Focus”). As time went on African Americans were still mistreated, but some made their way into society by escaping to the north during the duration of slavery, while others educated themselves behind closed doors. By the 20th century some were very educated, seeing as though they finally had the right to do so. In her historical painting Jones allows viewers to observe the life of descendants of Ethiopia. Jones draws observers into the struggles of her people in this painting and by the way she uses design elements to tell the story.
When an observer first views this painting the eye is immediately drawn to the figure in the bottom right corner wearing a blue and black headdress facing left with a profile view. This figure (which covers about one fourth of the canvas) is watching others carry pots on their heads. These silhouette-type figures are also gesturing toward a glowing star in the top left corner, or they are holding hands while looking towards a city in the top right corner. All are moving to an elevated position in the painting, the city in the top right corner is composed of two big buildings where there are two entertainers in front; one is playing the piano while the other seems to be preparing to sing because there are music notes around him. Then, behind these two big buildings there’s a big round yellow circular object protruding from the side, surrounded by two blue/turquoise concentric circles. It has a face, and someone on a bended knee appearing to be acting on top of it. The turquoise colored circle bigger than the previous one has a face coming out towards the inside. Further up there’s someone painting on top of the blue circle with the words art above enclosed within the blue circle. A symbolic palette and brush are painted within that same blue circle, the star in the top left corner has rays of squiggly blue, green, and black streaks that radiate diagonally. The star is inside of a yellow circle shining down on the people gesturing towards it, this picture reflects what Jones was trying to convey to her audience.
Jones chooses to briefly convey certain moments of the story by the use of certain iconographic references, and narrative devices. She uses several strategies in this piece to tell this story. For example, to depict Ethiopia Jones uses the large figure wearing the ethnic headdress to signify the importance of Ethiopia to the painting. The words art and the people leading to the city represent the African-American community and their progress over time including their life struggles that influence their art. Not only does the large figure represent Ethiopia, but the pyramids do also. The star in the top left corner of the painting represents the infamous north star that the slaves used as a guide to lead them to the north. The position of the people in the image towards the bottom on the right suggests a plea for mercy, by the way position of their arms are bent and they are hunched over, accompanied by their body language that expresses redemption by their confident and straight up posture. Other design elements including line, space, and color all come together to tell this story. The lines in this painting are fluid, straight, and squiggly based on the outline of the figure, the sky to the right, and the mountain in the middle. The space in this painting is deep because due to the perspective of the painting. If the viewer is standing right in front of the figures with the head dress. The position of the objects allows her to take a deep perspective into what’s going on. By the position of the objects and how they are placed in front of, and behind each other. Also the surrounding space frames the narrative, especially at the bottom by the large figure to the right, and to the left the stairs. The colors in this painting are of a cool dark color scheme using only black, and blue mostly, but also yellow to represent salvation, light, and triumph. The blacks and blues in this painting are used to represent their struggle, for example in the saying “blue in the face” or “beaten till your black and blue”. The visual elements are arranged asymmetrically, are rhythmic, open, and unbalanced to appeal to the viewer (Terry).
The artists used the position and technique of the forms to tell the story. The figures in the bottom left corner include one with the clay pot. He is hunched over and seems sad. The others appear to be holding their heads up high. It seems as if they know that the times are going to change, and that things will get better because of a higher being. Also the colors used really emphasize the feel of the painting. The darkness of this picture emphasizes how over time African Americans used their education to bring their light to the rest of society.
The creator of this painting Lois Mailou Jones was born in the city of Boston, ironically a city of the visual arts and the birthplace for American impressionism (Woods 644).Here she attended Boston’s High School of Practical Arts, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (Laduke 28). After graduating Jones began a career as a freelance textile and fabric designer, however this was when she discovered that this career didn’t give her the recognition she wanted (Benjamin 25). Textile design did not give her the recognition she was accustomed to from her previous works (Nicholson 598). Therefore, Jones sought out something that would gain her recognition as an artist (Benjamin 25). As a result, she found the Harmon Foundation of New York, a foundation established to assist in the development of a greater economic security for African Americans, that held national competitions for black artists (Benjamin 25). After exhibiting several of her works and receiving several awards Jones emerged as a black artist and strayed away from classroom teachings. Through this foundation she became interested in black America’s 20th century movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. As a result, she created a painting that would launch her career as a full-time acclaimed artists.
The painting that started Jones’ career was entitled The Ascent of Ethiopia and is an expression of “cultural identity” an identity that was simultaneously a part of American consciousness, considering that only a decade earlier the nation had been fascinated by Egypt after the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb (Benjamin 26). The Ascent of Ethiopia inspired by The Awakening of Ethiopia a sculpted piece created by Meta Warrick Fuller, as stated by Jones in an interview given by Charles Rowell (358). It was a painting created during the Harlem Renaissance, also known as The New Negro Movement a time when Harlem was the peak of black artistic culture (Benjamin 26). This era is represented in Jones’ painting by her image of the city and the words music, art, and drama. Also, by the way the image has figures that appear to be acting and singing. The Ascent of Ethiopia was one of Jones’ first works, but was typical because many of her other works were culturally diverse paintings (Benjamin 25-102). Her style of painting reflects many cultures and lifestyles, but some of her best works have come from painting aspects of her own heritage.
The slave trade changed many lives and has affected millions throughout America. It is the foundation of African American history, and lead to the artistic movement of black culture known as the Harlem Renaissance. This history will continue to affect many generations, and Jones depicts the history accurately in her painting making the story appealing to everyone. With the way she uses design, line, color, space, narrative devices, and iconographic references to tell the story. This painting draws attention to an area of my life that is usually not highlighted in art. Her training in Boston allowed her to paint her heritage accurately, and the certain aspects of history she chose were the most important. Also, the recognition she gained from the Harlem Renaissance, thanks to The Harmon Foundation, is an honor she will never forget. “The Ascent of Ethiopia” her first acclaimed oil painting has been one of her best works, and Jones fits into her own painting by her contributions to art as an African American woman painter during the era of the Harlem Renaissance. The Ascent of Ethiopia was truly Lois Mailou Jones’ way of introducing the African American Heritage to the rest of the country.
- Benjamin Hayes Tritobia. The Life and Art of Lois Mailou Jones. California: Pomegranate Artbooks, 1994.
- DeLamotte,C. Eugenia. Instant Moments: Allegory and the Spatial Compression of Time. <http://www3.sympatico.ca/knight.sinding/acla/delamotte.htm> 26 March 2006
- “Focus on the Slave trade”. BBC News (3 September 2001): 6 April 2006 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/1523100.stm
- Jones, Lois Mailou. Ascent of Ethiopia. Milwaukee Art Museum. University of Wisconsin-Madison. <http://uwm.edu/Dept/MLS/syllabi/702/702-13.html 13 April 2006
- Laduke, Betty “Lois Mailou Jones: The Grande Dame of African American Art.” Women’s Art Journal (1991): 28-32.
- Nicholson, Dolores. “Lois M. Jones ( Madame Vergniaud Pierre-Noel).” Notable Black American Women. Ed. Smith, Carney Jessie. United Kingdom: Gale Research Inc., 1992. 597-600.
- Rowell, H. Charles. An interview with Lois Mailou Jones. Callaloo. Ed. Rowell, H. Charles. Baltimore MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989. 356-381
- Terry, Jim. LBA Seven Pleasures. Course Handout. Stephens College Spring Semester 2006
- Woods, Marianne. “Jones, Lois Mailou” Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. Ed. Finkelman, Paul, and Wintz, D. Cary. New York:Routledge, 2004. 644-645.