HomeArtist BiographiesArtist Bio: Jeff Donaldson

Artist Bio: Jeff Donaldson

b. 1932
Birth Place: Pine Bluff, AR
Nationality: American
Education: PhD-African/African American Art History, Northwestern University; MFA, IIT Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology; BA, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff
Lives and Works:
Signature Medium: Screen Printing

Artwork in Collection: Victory in the Valley of Eshu

As a visual artist, Jeff Donaldson's work helped define the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s by developing a uniting aesthetic—transAfricanism which is characterized by high energy color, rhythmic linear effects, flat patterning, form-filled composition and picture plane compartmentalization. The goal of this new black arts movement was to use art for social impact by creating "art for the people"—an art form that was recognizable by and directed toward the common black folk, rather than a group of well-educated elite. In 1968, the desired to unify the fragmented concept of black art and give it a recognized existence, resulted in the formation of the groundbreaking group AfriCOBRA or the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, in which Donaldson was the cofounder. Additionally, Donaldson was a pioneer in African American personal and academic achievement. In 1974, he was one of the first African Americans at Northwestern to earn a doctorate in African/African American Art History.

Statement of Work:
The transAfrican style was manifest in Donaldson’s individual work as well, as is demonstrated in the 1971 piece entitled Victory in the Valley of Eshu. The work depicts an elderly black couple holding what appears to be an eye-shaped pinwheel. The pinwheel is actually an "African American symbol of freedom, the six-legged star." In addition to displaying national diasporic symbols, Victory in the Valley of Eshu incorporates many elements of traditional African culture, paying homage to the common heritage of diaspora members

The work is filled with Yoruba and traditional African references, including the Yoruba Sango dance wand in the right hand of the man, references to deified ancestors (a Yoruba belief), the name "Esu" which is the Yoruba god of fate, and others. The newly prominent element of "shine," an aesthetic effect mimicking or displaying physical shine in order to reflect the bright, star-like quality of ordinary African Americans, is visible in this piece. This effect achieves the "celebration" aspect of black art: an art that, as stated by Donaldson, "define[s], glorif[ies], and direct[s] black people—an art for the people’s sake." The notion of "shine" that is conveyed through the collection of small dots of color in the figures' hair and surrounding their bodies.

Additionally, the afros of the couple seem to mimic halos. These elements, in combination with the couple's bright white clothing, complete the celebration of the ordinary in this African diasporic work. The little splotches and dots of color seem to emanate from the bodies and to dance their way around the edges of the portrait, conveying that notion of a rhythmic motion which was integral in transAfrican work.