Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 20, 2023
Samantha A. Noël Tropical Aesthetics of Black Modernism Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021. 264 pp.; 8 color ills.; 48 b/w ills. Paper $26.95 (9781478011408)

In Tropical Aesthetics of Black Modernism, Samantha A. Noël cites E. E. Cummings’s description of Josephine Baker in the premiere of La Folie Du Jour at the Folies-Bergère in 1926 as “equally nonprimitive and uncivilized or, beyond time in the sense that emotion is beyond arithmetic” (169). Noël’s study makes sense of how the tropical has been framed beyond arithmetic or reason into an aesthetic strategy by Black artists across the Black Atlantic. If, for Cummings, tropicality, as personified by Baker, is “neither infrahuman nor superhuman, but somehow both; a mysteriously unkillable Something,” (169) Noël explores its persistence through the paradoxes that the tropical conjures. For Noël, these paradoxes from primitive other to picturesque tourism albeit mysterious, unwieldy, unstoppable, and ultimately unkillable, makes tropicality a site of resistance and reclamation for Black artists of the early twentieth century. Noël’s book is a timely intervention in explicating the seeming unknowability of tropicality as a knowable and essentially, knowing “Something” that does not refute modernism but is active in its formation. The significance of this intervention is in Noël’s postulation of the tropical as part of Black modernism notwithstanding these contradictions that have been instilled primarily through the purview of the colonial project. The crux of Noël’s argument is her assertion that tropical aesthetics confounds and displaces these dichotomies and crucially, it is these displacements that confer tropicality’s modernity.

The book is expansive in its exploration of the tropical as an aesthetics and can be divided thematically into two halves. The distinction between land and body is reflected through gendered notions of tropicality. The first two chapters deal with the tropics as terrain and its vegetation in works by Aaron Douglas and Wifredo Lam, drawing on the internal and external migrations of each in their specific landscapes of America and Cuba. Noël explores the notion of an “embodied tropicality” (153) in a chapter that traces the evolution of female gendered fictive and social roles of the “jamette” within the history of Trinidad’s celebrated carnival. The exploration of tropical embodiment is concluded in the final chapter through the performances and visual representations of Maya Angelou and Josephine Baker. The alignment of the external world with male artistic practice is demarcated from the corporeal focus on female performance and their self-representation. As distinguished by the book’s structure, these distinctions lend themselves to Noël’s claim that tropicality is a social construction.

While the gendered and sexualized implications of Black female tropicality are explored closely in the second half of the book, Noël also complicates such divisions. Douglas’s rendering of the landscape as a protagonist in The Emperor Jones (1926) series and Lam’s polymorphic human hybrid beings, often indivisible with the land, are operative for Noël with Angelou’s use of simulated jungle landscapes in early musical performances, and Baker’s banana skirt costumes redolent with phallic symbolism and equally, castration. Similarly, carnival performances deploy a bodily engagement to reclaim the land from both cultural and physical repression. Noël explicates the primal link between the body and the land within the often-overlooked rootedness of Black diasporic cultures but also asserts tropicality’s significant challenge to heteronormativity as a creolized and mutable form.

Noël’s conclusion expands upon tropicality’s mutability and its capacity to exceed and cannibalize norms even into a speculative realm through case studies of Hélio Oiticica, Edouard Duval-Carrié, and Wangechi Mutu. Noël further delineates here how nature can be conjoined with and into the body by these artists. Nature is given primacy as a counterdiscourse through tropicality, consolidating the position invoked with the external world throughout the book. Rather than the modern defined by its use of nature as capital, Noël makes the salient point that tropicality engenders “a new kind of modernity that privileges nature and man’s relationship with it” (81). These artists present tropicality’s wider cultural and geographical reach in authorizing nature’s role that is not at odds but attuned with the modernity of the Global South. Simultaneously, they expose the myth of purity destabilized by tropicality through artistic cannibalism and defiling aesthetic binaries in preconceptions of the natural. Noël connects these ideas as a diasporic network of tropical aesthetics from the early twentieth century in contemporary practices, emphasizing tropicality’s mode as one of cross-fertilization than strictly linear or genealogical. Lam’s works thus correlate as much to Mutu as Oiticica; unified through a tropical aesthetics that disrupts the boundaries between Old, New, and future worlds.

Tropical Aesthetics clearly demonstrates how tropicality’s “uneven geographies” (99) extends beyond its designated terrain—that is the equatorial zones understood as the tropics. Noël’s transnational remit encompasses North America, Europe, and the Global South configured by conquest and its ideologies. As much as a consideration of the geopolitical geographies of domination, Noël is concerned with the psychogeography of Black tropicality. Together, they propose an alternative reformulation of real and imagined “space-making” (4). Noel’s application of Katherine McKittrick’s “naming of place” and the surrealist notion of the “marvelous real” from Alejo Carpentier and René Ménil enact this space-making, providing the theoretical underpinning of the book. If naming is an act of self-assertion, the marvelous is a state of possibility. At stake for Noël within this space-making is tropicality’s liberatory potential in which claiming and imagining become subversive acts for reinscribing the relationships and territories circumscribed by others.

In situating tropicality predominantly through the lens of a wider Pan-African world, Africa works, not in antithesis to the West, but as a “purposeful interlocutor to modern life” (4). Africa is an originary space, a primeval site, and an imaginary appearing in relational translocations through tropicality. This conjunction of Africa with early twentieth century Black internationalism and its diasporic practices is important in perceiving that tropical representations were not only figured in, or as responses, to the colonial imagination. Whereas the art histories of Black modernity can often be cast as appendages to Western art movements and geographies, or as a component of a concurrent universal modernism, Tropical Aesthetics is a salutary and notable rejoinder of Black expressive cultures and their impact on their own terms and equally uneven histories. The inclusion of figures and their practices such as Lam, Oiticica, and the mixed heritage of female performers of Trinidad’s carnival within the mandate of Black modernism augments its influence, affirming Blackness as a wider cultural signifier in this period.

Following in the tradition of Krista Thompson, Valèrie Loichot, and Suzanne Cèsaire, Noël’s project is multivalent, integrating the fantastical with the sociopolitical. It is a comprehensive study, collating well-known and familiar depictions of tropical representation for the first time in relation to Black modernity. It covers new ground in exploring what the tropical entails, including the subtropical and the simulated tropical. Maya Angelou’s calypso recordings in her first and only album, Miss Calypso (1957) are an example. Presented in fabricated tropical landscapes on the album cover and promotional materials alongside her film appearances, they are an understudied area of her early work as a performer within the longer arc of her career. Noël examines how Angelou’s recordings uphold racial and gender stereotypes of exoticized tropicality and yet belie them through spirituality and resistance invoked in the lyrics and calypso music. Noël acknowledges the complexities that arise from this; recognising how Black artists could be part of a discourse that they do not construct or control—“even as the very terms of representations insist upon the opposite” (176). Likewise, Noël’s analysis of Tony Hall’s play Jean and Dinah (2001) about sex workers in Trinidad exemplifies the class distinctions and social realities enmeshed within carnival performances that threatened the dominant social order dating back to the nineteenth century. These readings of Angelou and Hall illustrate Noël’s own critical and discursive approach to writing neglected and marginalized histories that extend our idea of the tropical and how it can be understood.

Noël’s book is an ambitious project. By dislocating tropicality from a Western gaze and its constructions, Noël reorients it as an artistic trope of transformation and self-definition. Its infinite life, or “unkillable Something” functions as allegories of flight, revolt, and survival. Mapping a throughline between works such as Thomas Moran’s Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp (1861–62), Lam’s The Jungle (1942–44), and Baker’s performance in “Danse des Sauvages’’ in La Revue Nègre (1925) reveal these underlying narratives through a tropical aesthetics. The privileging of nature and its connection to Africa imbues tropicality with a spirituality and animism often overshadowed and recast as primitivism. Its cultural transmission is resonant in the book, whether overtly embedded as in Lam’s La Sombre Malembo, Dieu du Carrefour (1943), or sublimated in calypso songs and carnival masquerade. Noël offers a tropicality that is symbiotic and evolving. Its transgressive excess and mutability are qualified through the interdisciplinary scope of her project, supporting the continuing reappraisal of art history’s limits. Noël’s diverse and wide-ranging framework incorporating the Hudson River School to Afro-futurism speaks to tropicality not only as an aesthetic methodology but as a critical and historical discourse. As with its geographical span, tropicality’s aesthetic and critical span underscores the breadth of Black modernism. Noël’s tropical aesthetics proposes “a different way of knowing and imagining the world” (95) and a different conception of modernity, rooted in nature and its unbounded possibility.

Indie A. Choudhury
Lecturer in Modern & Contemporary Art, The Courtauld Institute of Art