Mending socks and tales of Africa

IN 1924, Emily Motley had her portrait painted by her grandson, the Chicago painter Archibald John Motley Jr. (1891-1981). Motley was a distinguished American painter who advanced and promoted themes and images of black life in art during the opening decades of this century. Motley graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1918 and was a Guggenheim fellow in Paris in 1929. He was part of the American Scene movement in the 1930s, and was influenced by fellow American Scene artists such as Randall Davey, John Sloan, and George Bellows. These painters optimistically exploited the picturesqueness and power of their country and its inhabitants.

Motley used Chicago as the setting for paintings and drawings of people in the streets, showing them in churches, poolrooms, black and tan cabarets, and jazz sets. In France, he painted and drew North Africans, Africans from sub-Saharan regions, and Africans in the diaspora.

Often his family and friends, both rural and cosmopolitan, were the subjects of his paintings, as in ``Mending Socks,'' executed in oil on canvas and now in the collection of the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.

According to family oral history, Motley's paternal grandmother ``...was a Pygmy from former British East Africa, a little bit of a person, very small ... about 4 feet 8 or 9 inches'' in height. Emily Motley often told her grandson about her days as a slave in Tennessee and Louisiana (where the artist and his mother and father were born).

When tutors came to teach the master's children, Emily Motley also learned to read and write. Consequently, she had the education of a seventh- or eighth-grade student. Her stories fueled the artist's interest in Africa, and throughout his career he painted African subjects. In paintings like ``Waganda Charm Makers,'' ``Waganda Woman's Dream,'' and ``Kikuyu, God of Fire'' all dated about 1927, he focused on ethnic groups from Africa's east coast - which is, supposedly, where his grandmother's ancestors had come from.

AFRICA'S east coast and America's history were inextricably linked. For example, in ``Zamani: A Survey of East African History,'' stories are told of dwarfs who found shelter in the seclusion of dense forests in this area. Although it is unclear how true these stories are, at least they acknowledge the presence of Pygmies in the highland regions of Kenya and northern Tanzania.

Indeed, Motley's grandmother bears a striking resemblance to the Dorobo, who are related to the so-called Bushman or Pygmy people. The Dorobo inhabit the Rift Valley Province between Lake Victoria, Nyanza, and the Indian Ocean. Many of the slaves who were brought out of this region were exported from Zanzibar, a major port of exit and the capital of the east coast Swahili area, which included present-day Kenya and Tanzania.

Zanzibar was involved in trade with America and Europe. When America realized the significance of Zanzibar as a major port, an American consulate was established there in 1836. Thus, by the middle of the 19th century, approximately 15,000 slaves were sold there on a yearly basis.

AMERICANS would buy ivory, frankincense, gum arabic, copra (a byproduct of coconut), cowrie shells, and slaves. The term merikani (American), applied to cotton goods and blankets along the east coast, indicates the importance of American trade at the time.

In ``Mending Socks,'' the artist shows his grandmother seated in a high-back, wooden chair; lips tightly pursed, she is peering intently at a sock she is repairing. She is wearing wire-rimmed glasses and is dressed in a dark skirt, white shirt, and apron; a red-plaid, fringed shawl, clasped together by a cameo brooch, covers her erect shoulders.

The table next to her is covered with a decorative blue-and-white cloth; on it sit more socks to be mended. (Family members have pointed out that the socks are in the shape of the continent of Africa.) Other items on the table include an opened sewing basket, two spools of thread, scissors, a lamp, a stemmed bowl with fruit, a ceramic figurine, and a glass. Motley, who was intrigued by light and detail, shows us the reflection of a spool of thread in the glass. On the wall is a portrait of Emily Motley's former slave mistress (whose face may also adorn the cameo brooch).

In ``Mending Socks,'' Motley creates a quiet setting, yet in it he weaves together centuries of history - family, national, and international.

This work has been part of many exhibitions and has won several prizes, including the most-popular-painting award at the Newark Museum of Art's ``Exhibition of Painting and Watercolors by Living American Artists'' in 1927. Some 800 museum patrons and visitors voted in a contest at the museum. This year marks the 50th anniversary of their decision.

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