By Aditi Balasubramanian
Boston University News Service
Since February, the art exhibition “I Am As I Am—A Man,” has been open to the public at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Showcasing the works of Napoleon Jones-Henderson from over the past 50 years, the exhibition highlights various aspects of African culture through a colorful lens.
“It’s a really exuberant exhibition,” said Jeffrey De Blois, the organizer of the exhibition. “All of the walls are painted KoolAid colors. A lot of Napoleon’s work is really joyful and self-affirming.”
Jones-Henderson grew up in Chicago, where he studied visual art and weaving before moving to Boston in 1974. Now residing in Roxbury, he is the executive director of the Research Institute of African and African Diaspora Arts, Inc. and Bennu Arts LLC.
“I Am As I Am—A Man” is named for one of Jones-Henderson’s pieces. The image is a collage of moments from the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike. It includes people holding “I Am A Man” signs and images of Martin Luther King Jr. The title encapsulates Jones-Henderson’s legacy of work that he’s created over the years.
“It’s really coming from, I think, a place of AfriCOBRA’s aesthetic tenants, which was to sort of understand what the role of the visual artist was in the Civil Rights Movement first,” said De Blois. “And so it’s a kind of affirmation of humanity. And so that’s the kind of affirmation that has been in all of Napoleon’s works. And so it just felt right for the title of the exhibition.”
Jones-Henderson became a member of the AfriCOBRA group in 1969, only a year after its founding. The African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists was a group founded in Chicago in 1968. According to Jones-Henderson, the group’s purpose was to call attention to self-determination and Black liberation.
Jones-Henderson consciously includes elements from the group’s artwork like the “shine.” The “shine” isn’t just integral to the group, but also to the African community.
In an interview with WBUR, he talked about the significance of this aspect.
“That shine is the thing that Black people are exuberant about,” said Jones-Henderson. “You definitely had to have your shine on when you went to church and other important events like parties and birthday celebrations.”
“Shine was part of the natural aesthetics of African people. We saw that, looking into our community. A metallic surface reflects light, and as one applies oil to dark skin, it reflects light,” said Jones-Henderson in an interview with The Bay State Banner.
This exhibition has been in the making for years. After having recently seen some AfriCOBRA exhibitions, De Blois became interested in the history and the relevance of their art today. He soon met Jones-Henderson at the Boston Art Book Fair, and after a few studio visits and art discussions, the idea of the exhibition was formed.
De Blois hopes that people visiting the exhibition are able to build an appreciation for Jones-Henderson and his work.
“I know it’s Napoleon’s interest that people come away from the exhibition feeling sort of spiritually nourished. So if that’s the case, I’m all for it,” De Blois said