This project is a multi-disciplinary social sculpture that aims to examine and communicate the dynamic interaction of French and African-American cultures. OBA III: Black is Beautiful is the final phase of this three-part project that connects artists, cultural organizations, and the French and American publics in an analysis and celebration of African-American creativity.
A rich and influential culture has emerged from this country’s sometimes traumatic history, that of African Americans. As the United States has evolved, new modes of expression have arisen, reflecting in particular the growth of urban centers. Ties with African cultures, the fight against slavery, and the emergence of the civil rights movement helped establish a fertile ground for the flowering of now-international musical forms such as gospel, blues, jazz, rock, and hip-hop, and for associated codes of language and dress. France was especially quick to embrace this culture as it emerged. An early center of the jazz scene, Paris was also home to African-American writers of the 1950s such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin. African-American artists and forms have continued to exercise a strong influence on French culture. Conceived by Monte Laster, the project Our Better Angels (OBA) aims to examine and communicate the dynamic interaction of French and African-American cultures. OBA III is a multi-disciplinary project that will take place over a period of 18 months from September 2012 to February 2014 in the cities of Paris (and its northern suburbs), New York, Washington, D.C., Houston, and Dallas–Fort Worth. It will conclude with an exhibition showcasing artworks made during all three parts of OBA.
The subject of this final chapter was inspired by a conversation with Abiodun Oyewole, African-American poet and founding member of pioneering rap group, the Last Poets. During his 2011 residency with FACE in La Courneuve, Oyewole spoke about his first trip to Africa in 1970, a return to the motherland that proved to be an awakening for reasons other than those he had anticipated.
In discussions with his African friends, Oyewole gained a new awareness of the impact of African-American culture on the contemporary world in general, and on Americans’ lives in particular. Quite suddenly, he saw in the African-American legacy a culture that had channeled a potentially bloody fight into artistic expression, which in turn became admired, respected, and popular. This gave him a sense of pride that became the driving force behind his creative practice.
On April 25, 2012, Monte Laster organized, with the Embassy of United States in Paris, a workshop with jazz master Herbie Hancock. During this event, Hancock discussed his work with a group of 50 people that included participants in OBA I, students of the Conservatory of Music at La Courneuve, rappers, curators, and art critics. The event became an opportunity to introduce a discussion about the mixing of African-American and other influences, a longstanding characteristic of Hancock’s music.