Black cultural artwork
Albert Artwell, Jesse through the Black Star Liner (c. 1980s). Sea with four boats. Time is collapsed with boats carrying Jesse, Jesus, and other biblical figures alongside Marcus Garvey's Black Star Liner.

The largest Black political organ of the twentieth century, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), was co-founded by Amy Ashwood Garvey and Marcus Mosiah Garvey in Kingston, Jamaica amidst a range of self-organizing institutions of the laboring class, opting to advance their rights and interests as workers and citizens. In 1917, the UNIA headquarters was relocated to the Black Metropolis of Harlem, New York, synchronizing the cultural, political, and economic chords of the Pan-African coalition. With shifts in socio-political alignment through travel and self-study, transatlantic freedom movements were breaking down and interrogating boundaries between Black peoples.

While the UNIA’s enterprises and aspirations included an internationally distributed newspaper, The Negro World, the main economic venture was an all-Black shipping company incorporated as the Black Star Line: Owned, operated, and financed by Black people. Although it suffered detrimentally due to mismanagement and government sabotage, the symbolic importance was immeasurable and also of practical significance simply because it did come to fruition, in spite of all that resisted it.

The imaginings of Albert Artwell, one of Jamaica’s most prominent self-taught artists, were spun with biblical stories, town scenes, and seascapes. Adamant that God is Black and that Jesus had African ancestry, his religious visions fitted the prophecy of Marcus Garvey: “Look to Africa where a Black king shall be crowned, he shall be the Redeemer.” The genesis of Artwell’s artistic life were surfaces with supremely decorative calligraphy of passages from the Scriptures. His recasting of Christ’s story and other biblical wisdoms meant that Bethlehem was set in Jamaica and the main actors were Black.

Jesse through the Black Star Liner (c. 1980s) not only contests and confronts the dominant cosmogonic model, but also proposes an alternative. Artwell’s color choices privileged the Rastafari hues of red, green, and gold. Flat-painted and illustrative, the artwork uses the illusive technique of a stacked perspective, reminiscent of Egyptian art. Eschewing the need for “realistic” scale and perspective, the composition and symbolism created an alternate version of the world. In this artwork, Jesse, the father of King David, is the central figure. As a man of apparent wealth and position in Bethlehem, Jesse is commandeering his audience who are lined along the shores, as well as the passengers sailing on a Black Star Line ship. This scene foretells the coming of a Redeemer who water-bends in order to remake.

One approach to the content, form, and structure of the Black aesthetic is a totality of social commitments, cultural values, and conventional wisdom. This approach considers the syndrome of internal factors governing a Black audience's perception and appreciation of a work of art. Our evaluation is a study of means rather than ends, because the message is only part of the poem and part of its success. After all, people learn what is beautiful in the same way they learn language. 

“Culture” is the inescapable umbrella term that covers almost everything and is still not enough, but just as life, it can transcend the matter from which it springs. Often concerned with joy and justice, there is a strong desire for realisms in Black art, but that doesn’t rule out euphemism and a sense of propriety. The hegemony of a single globalizing Western culture aids and abets the suppression of existing traditions, often through the manipulation of images and narratives over hundreds of years. And so, in self-defense there is a constant and urgent need for cultural counter-missiles.[a] Jesse through the Black Star Liner offers one such oppositional approach through Artwell’s sensibilities in compositions, cosmologies, and color.

The Black aesthetic transmutes with time as well as geography. It mirrors the Garvey-era shift in socio-political alignment, achieved through travel and self-study and produced enduring transatlantic liberation movements. The human source of this may be based either on genius, artistic skill, or studious activity, which are just some essential pillars needed for creating styles and virtuosity. Overarching this is a whole process of living, ruling oneself, working for oneself, feeding and entertaining oneself as a matter of life. An inward stretch into our already existing depositories of data, methods, and processes will best guarantee another 100 years of Black aesthetics that reach.