The painting, “The Ascent of Ethiopia” by Lois Mailou Jones is a stunning work. One of the featured works in the 1997-1998 exhibition and accompanying book Rhapsodies in Black, David Bailey writes about the works and artists, saying “All of these artists from the diaspora have produced modernist autobiographical works that explore issues of representing the body, migration, memory and cultural hybridity.” This is certainly an apt description of Jones’ “The Ascent of Ethiopia.
The richness of African-American heritage matches the richness of hues in this stunning painting. The bright blue and yellow hues of the painting evoke a hopeful tone, and set the stage for the figures that are depicted literally ascending from their African origins as they walk up a series of steps in a journey beginning from a large Egyptian-looking figure in the bottom right quadrant of the work. Five silhouetted, haloed figures are depicted gazing upward as they pass through the glow of the North Star, which casts a bright beam, creates a halo around each of the figures, and symbolizes their past history of slavery, and the viewer’s eye is led up to their destination at the top of the painting, which embodies the vibrant excitement of the Harlem Renaissance.
The concentric white and blue circles around the moon in the upper right quadrant of the piece lend a pulsating sensation to the portion of the work that depicts Harlem and the Renaissance spirit. These circles are reminiscent of Aaron Douglas’ use of concentric circles in much of his work. With the moon and those energizing circles as the backdrop, all of the icons of the Harlem Renaissance are represented: the painter’s palette, brushes and artist standing at an easel, musical notes, a piano and vocalist, actors, theatre masks, the words “ART” and “DRA” (for drama) and “MU” (for music) – all centered around the tall city buildings, which most surely represent Harlem itself.
There’s a definite art deco feel to the work, but there’s something in the sky around the North Star that is also reminiscent of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” and the work of the French impressionists. Trained first at Boston’s Museum School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Jones then went to Paris, where she attended the Academe Julian to study painting. Upon her return, she met Alain Locke who encouraged her to focus more on the black subject, “The Ascent of Ethiopia” was inspired by this encouragement from Locke, and was the first painting Jones completed as a young professor at Sedalia in North Carolina.
Painted in 1932, this work comes toward the end (or, by many accounts, even after) the Harlem Renaissance. The painting was created in the same year that Louis Armstrong was featured prominently in the musical short, A Rhapsody in Black and Blue, coincidentally two of the colors featured prominently in this work of art. This African-American theme represents much of Jones’ work during the 30s. She was also greatly inspired by the Harlem Renaissance. Jones, an important artist linked to the trans-Atlantic idea of NÈgritute (CÈsaire and Senghor), also won the distinction of being the last surviving artist of the New Negro or Harlem Renaissance.
The large Egyptian-looking face in profile as well as the pyramids in Jones’ painting hearken back to W.E.B. DuBois’ “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” (1903) in which he states, “After the Egyptian and the Indian, the Greek and the Roman, the Teuton and the Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son…” DuBois’ essay addresses his desire to come to terms with having a sort of dual identity, to be “both a Negro and an American,” he writes.
“The Ascent of Ethiopia” suggests that this dualism has been successfully accomplished, as it elegantly and seamlessly mixes imagery from the past and the present. The work suggests a hopeful future, made possible by the Harlem Renaissance. Even the name of this work suggests this dualism. The painting is not named “The Ascent From Ethiopia” but rather “The Ascent of Ethiopia,” suggesting that the past, the history, the origin becomes part of the present and the future experience of the African-American.