Pieces of art left from the earlier epochs can provide a lot of information about the contemporary society, its inherent values, beliefs and conflicts. The present paper is intended to discuss and interpret a drawing from the Darktown Banjo Class Series entitled “Off the Key” and attributed to the period of Reconstruction, an uneasy and difficult epoch, marked with the appearance of revolutionary social and political movements.
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The artwork was published by Currier & Ives Company, famous for its sharp and sarcastic caricatures, which depicted contemporary social conflicts with great precision. Similarly to the other items of the Darktown Comics, “Off the Key” was created by artist Thomas Worth (1834-1917). As Le Beau assumes, “African American stereotypes that still exist today were begun here – the connection of African Americans to music, in Darktown specifically of banjo playing, and of their supposed eating habits […]”.
“Off the Key” depicts a group of African Americans, three man and two women, playing banjo and singing. All of them are dressed in quite garish clothes: for instance, one of the male banjo players is wearing green jacket and trousers with pink strips, one of the women has a dress with yellow ornament and blue shoes on. Such combination of colors is to great extent unexpected and does not comply with the traditional norms of harmonious matching. The musicians seem embarrassed and dismayed by something, as their eyes and mouths are opened wide. The dominant chromatic of the artwork is hot , the general tone is light brown. All colors are saturated and matted, but there are signs of discoloration on the drawing. The scene is pictured on the light brown background, and the musicians look like five bright spots, as each of them is depicted in different colors as compared to the others. In particular, the man on the left in dressed in green and pink, his neighbor pink and red, another woman in yellow and blue, the next man in the dark blue and brown, and the man on the right – in brown and red. The complimentarity between ornaments is even more unusual, as stripped trousers on one of the musicians are followed by checkered suit and spotted dress on the others. It also needs to be noted that the gamma employed in this artwork is not actually rich, as there are no half-tints or shadows so that the drawing does look one-dimensional. In the present artwork, one can notice predominantly irregular shapes, which can be found in the nature. The characters are portrayed in regular human proportions; however, one of the musicians has unnaturally long legs and huge feet. Moreover, it needs to be noted that the shape of their skulls do not fully resemble human, due to pear-like heads and disproportionately large noses, covering approximately one fourth of the faces. Lines are used to create these complex shapes and to direct the viewer’s attention to the numerous folds on the clothes of the banjo players, i.e. in order to underline their crumpled outfit, the author uses additional dark and thick lines. Curved and contour lines dominate.
The style of the artwork is caricature, due to the grotesque expressions on the characters’ faces and unnatural shapes of their heads. Due to the fact that it is referred to as vignette, it is quite hard to identify the means ; the original drawing might have been performed with gouache or other persistent dye. At the bottom edge one can notice water damage, so the handling of the work obviously did not comply with the formal principles.
Due to the context of the scene, one can assume that the illustration belongs to the American culture of the late 19th century, as it is racially offensive by its underlying message and shows the first stages of African Americans’ integration into the “white” society. Looking at this picture, one can also draw several conclusions about the contemporary African American culture and lifestyle: for instance, many of them many of them had great desire for making music, but lacked corresponding skills and education. The text at the bottom of the artwork reads: “If you can’t play de music, jes leff de banjo go!”. The simplest linguistic analysis reveals that the inscription contains the elements of jargon, attributed to African Americans. Ideologically, it seems quite humiliating, as the panic on the faces of the musicians clearly suggests that the musicians are neither professional nor skilful, yet they are probably performing in front of the large audience, considering their holiday outfit, intended as the Sunday best3. As result, the proficiency of African Americans in music as well as their ability to study and develop intellectually might have been challenged and their musical heritage might have been underestimated.
When I considered the history underlying the artwork, I realized there was a true enmity between the whites and the recently liberated racial minorities. Slavery was abolished not so long before the 1880s, and African Americans were trying to join the white society with the full set of legal rights and freedoms. In parallel, they were building their own culture and class consciousness, and the author of the artwork probably attempted to mock not merely the skills and abilities of racial minorities, but also their values and beliefs. I also kept in mind that the artist originated from and was grown in the society, where slavery was still legal, so by the 1880s, he was not able to fully reconcile himself with the fact that formerly enslaved people were creating their distinct leisure and entertainment practices and traditions.. Another idea is the passion for music African Americans obviously had, otherwise it wouldn’t have been illustrated in such a grotesque way. As the contemporary society expected from its members full observance of dress-code, the author probably tried to show African Americans as marginals in terms of the socially constructed “taste” in clothing. The crumpled and incongruous dresses and suits of the banjo players were probably intended to serve as the sign of their failure to become “valuable” members of society. Using all these ideas, I began to draw the copy of the artwork. In order to show the simple atmosphere of the working-class concert, I used thick lines and saturated colors. As I wanted to make my drawing look like a rough draft, I placed all the lines quite carelessly so that my characters appeared as egg-headed and long-legged creatures. It needs to be noted that my free interpretation of shapes seemed quite similar to the original artwork. In addition, keeping in mind the author’s assumption about the aesthetic taste of African Americans, I generously used bright colors and properly underlined all wrinkles on the musicians’ clothes so that it looked creased and worn-out. I also successfully managed to draw the homemade banjos in the characters’ hands.
Despite my previous success, I actually failed to properly represent the combination of fear, anxiety and surprise on the faces of the banjo players. As I used thinner lines when working on their faces, I received as a result a group of pleasant-looking and smiling people with round eyes and dark brown skin. I believe my mistake was associated with the lack of understanding of the criticism and hostility for African Americans the original artist had.
To sum up, although my own interpretation of the artwork entitled “Off the Key” turned out to have less ideological depth, I successfully reflected the contemporary beliefs about the “beauty” of African Americans as well as about the lack of conformity with socially constructed dress-codes. My final product depicts five musicians who seem content and positively surprised with their music training, as opposed to the original characters. I believe, racial bias and prejudices that original artist had implied certain negative feelings for racial minorities which I never had in fact.
Pinder, K. Race-ing Art History: Critical Readings in Race and History. Routledge, 2002, p.209.
Le Beau, B. “African Americans in Currier and Ives’s America: The Darktown Series”. Journal of American & Comparative Cultures, 21 (2004), pp.71-83.