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Who’s Afraid of Barney Newman

Postcard relating to an exhibition, 2012
Published by: Tate
Year published: 2012

image of Who’s Afraid of Barney Newman

Postcard of Frank Bowling’s Who’s Afraid of Barney Newman, 1968, acrylic paint on canvas, 236.4 x 129.5 cm, presented by Rachel Scott 2006. The postcard was one of a 16 postcard pack issued as part of the merchandising of the Tate’s 2012 Migrations exhibition. This work of Bowling’s was included in the exhibition. The pack contained cards of work by Benjamin West, Joseph Van Aken, James Tissot, Marcus Gheeraerts II, Jacob Kramer, Oskar Kokoschka, Kurt Schwitters, Sonia Boyce, William Rothenstein, Lubaina Himid, Jan Siberechts, Frank Bowling, Keith Piper, James Abbott McNeil Whistler, and John Singer Sargent. Frank Bowling’s Who’s Afraid of Barney Newman had, a year or two earlier, been exhibited as part of Afro Modern at Tate Liverpool.

One of the most important of Bowling’s map paintings was his 1968 work, Who’s Afraid of Barney Newman The painting was, in some ways, a profound homage to one of the giants of American abstract expressionism, and takes as its template Newman’s seminal painting of 1948, Onement, I.[i] The title of Bowling’s homage casually reflected a familiarity on Bowling’s part with the dominant personalities of contemporary art, who had made New York, their home, in much the same way as Bowling himself had. But the title also gives more than a passing nod to the Newman’s own critically acclaimed series, Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue.

Newman’s painting used what was to become his trademark approach to structuring vertical blocks of colour, demarcated by, in this instance, a slim fissure of contrasting band of colour. This was a hugely important painting, breaking as it did so many of the conventions that dominated the practice of painting, before the coming of abstract expressionism. And yet, Newman’s painting was in many ways a precise and disciplined and highly structured affair that confirmed him as a great American talent.  Bowling’s painting featured several discernible outlines of his beloved South America, overlaid with Newmanesque vertical zips of green, yellow and red, creating a highly charged and bold exploration of history and identity. The colours Bowling used related directly (or had a direct relation to) the powerful symbolism of the tricolour of red, gold and green. Since the 1970s the colours had become instant signifiers of a particular type of Black presence. Numerous flags of Africa utilised the red, gold and green colours, in a variety of compositions, but primarily as horizontal or vertical tricolours. Examples include Senegal, Ethiopia, Ghana, Rwanda, Benin, Cameroon, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Mali, and Congo. (In the case of a country such as Rwanda, the country’s red, yellow and green vertical tricolour, complete with capital R in the centre band, was replaced after the horrific period of genocide that the country went through in the mid 1990s. The replacing of the old Rwanda flag was part of the country’s attempts to shed associations with that violent and traumatic episode of its existence.)

It was though, the use of the red, gold and green colours in the Ethiopian flag, complete with the imperial Lion of Judah in the centre of the ensign, that led to the colours being so insistently used, worn, displayed and used as adornment by adherents of Rastafari, first in Jamaica and subsequently, throughout the international Black world.[iii] Within the context of Rastafari and its attendant ‘Dread’ culture, the red gold and green colours represented powerful symbolism. Published discussions of Rastas frequently alluded to the symbolism. For example, “Rastafarianism’s sacred colors are red (for the blood of the martyrs), green (for Zion’s abundant vegetation), and gold (for the wealth of Africa).”[iv]  When Rasta emerged in English cities in the mid 1970s neighbourhood, buildings, and people, all were identified by the presence of colours. Another commentator noted that “the wearing of the colours” red gold and green were a “visible symbol which denotes the Rasta… Often the colours are worn in the form of a knitted hat, but they may also be worn as a badge, as epaulettes, or woven into a cord tied round the waist.”[v] In English cities such as Liverpool, signs denoting street names in Frontline districts were painted in the colours, thereby decisively demarcating the territory. This though, was simply a version of what had long since been happening in Jamaica. “Every Rastafarian commune is identifiable by these colors which appear everywhere, even painted on the trunks of trees in the yards.”[vi]

The colours came to signify a particularly conscious type of Black presence. When worn on an individual, the colours confirmed that the wearer aspired to upful living. When adorning musical instruments such as drums, the colours signified that the drums in question were employed in the righteous task of chanting down Babylon. And when the red gold and green colours adorned dwellings, the message went out that no weakheart cannot enter. Thus, Bowling’s use of the colours evoked a multiplicity of diasporic readings that casually collided with his pronounced embrace of modernism and his respect for Abstract Expressionism.

The Black presence in South America may have been consistently denigrated, marginalised or even rendered less than visible, but in Who’s Afraid of Barney Newman, the South American land mass, as distinctive in its outline as the shape of Africa, was imagined as an unmistakably Black Diasporic space. It would though, be a serious error to suggest that Who’s Afraid of Barney Newman and other map paintings by Bowling were in any way merely illustrative, or explicit examples of pronounced social narratives. These paintings left an incredible amount to the imagination, because whilst the outlines of continents such as South America were unmistakable, other outlines of landmasses in these paintings emphatically defied conventional recognition. In this regard, Bowling not only created his own worlds by reconfiguring the world that already existed, he also created imagined new land masses, that, try as we might, we could never quite recognise as familiar parts of conventional world maps. Furthermore, whilst in Uruguayan artist Joaquin Torres-García’s Upside-down Map, South America was inverted, in a number of Bowling’s map paintings, South America sometimes appeared to have been reversed, thereby creating something that appeared at once familiar, yet not quite familiar. Whether or not Bowling’s maps were indeed reversed is a matter of visual conjecture or speculation. What is unquestionable however, is the extent to which his map paintings destabilise seemingly emphatic or monolithic constructions of the world, (or, as is the case in many instances, monolithic constructions of South America and South American identity). In other map paintings, Bowling goes further in challenging our sense of familiar cartography by presenting outlines of landmasses that look a lot like amalgamations of the outlines of the African and South American continents. And in so doing, Bowling again proposes a provocative and primary interplay between Africa and Latin America.

[i] Barnett Newman (American, 1905-1970). Onement, I, 1948. Oil on canvas and oil on masking tape on canvas, 69.2 x 41.2 cm. In the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

[ii] In the iconography of Rastafari, ‘The Lion of Judah’ symbolises the Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, who was crowned in 1930, taking the titles King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God and Power of the Trinity. Rastafarians hold Haile Selassie in the highest esteem, believing him to be a direct descendant of the Israelite Tribe of Judah, tracing his lineage through the line of King David and Solomon. Further, Rastafarians assert that Haile Selassie is the personage of the Lion of Judah mentioned in the New Testament Book of Revelation.

[iv] Nicholas J. Saunders (editor), The Peoples of the Caribbean: An Encyclopedia of Archaeology and Traditional Culture, ABC-CLIO, 2005, p. 235.

[v] John Plummer, Movement of Jah People: The Growth of the Rastafarians, Press Gang, Birmingham, 1978, p. 38

[vi] Leonard E Barrett, The Rastafarians: The Dreadlocks of Jamaica, Heinemann/Sangsters, 1977 (1982 edition), p. 143


Related people

»  (Sir) Frank Bowling OBE, RA

Born, 1935 - 1937 (probably 1936) in British Guiana (now Guyana) Caribbean/S. America

Related exhibitions

Related venues

»  Tate Britain

London, United Kingdom

»  Tate Liverpool

Liverpool, United Kingdom