Carlton Wilkinson: A Journey of Discovery

By Carlton F. Wilkinson, Photographer

Since childhood, where I questioned the absence of my likeness in my Baptist Church books and pamphlets, then later in life, where I questioned the lack of African American images used in advertisements which represented Middle America, I wondered why? we did not exist in the world I lived in. I remember the European image of Jesus Christ and other biblical figures that were illustrated on the church fans and stained glass windows in the sanctuary. Why were we nowhere but in real-life visions of poverty and social challenges that dominated the 1960s and 70s? Not until I read Ralph Ellison’s provoking prose in The Invisible Man did I realize that there were reasons to explain our ‘non- involvement’ in official histories and popular culture.

As I studied art in high school and later college, I was inundated with Master Artists of the European tradition of Art, but rarely was there a mention of anyone of African Ancestry who mastered his craft in The Arts.   Henry Ossawa Tanner and Romare Bearden are the only two black artists who were mentioned by my teachers. If I had not lived in Nashville, and near historically black colleges, such as Fisk and Tennessee State University, I would not have known that contemporary black artists existed at all.

After years of feeling ambivalent about my relevance in the world of the creative arts, I would learn slowly, but surely, that “I” did have a place in the world of the Fine Arts.  Further, I had the epiphany that “I” could create my own path in the pursuit of creative recognition and empowerment to change the perception that great art and artists are not all Caucasian. There were many Masters in the Arts in African, Asia, South and Central Americas and the Caribbean. And that profundity is not limited to their classification as being ‘ethnic art.’

As an art photographer, I empowered myself to focus my creativity to address social causes, history and visions of the future.  Through the early influences of African American Artists: David Driskell, Earl Hooks, Ted Jones, and others, I knew I could achieve measurable success living the dream of being a great American Artist. Upon viewing the courageous photographic art done by such artists as: Ansel Adams, Roy DeCarava, Alfred Stieglitz, Gordon Parks, Dorothea Lange and Diane Arbus, I knew I could forge my own path in creating thought-provoking images which addressed the human condition.

I create artistic series that do just that. My series, Supernal Impressions, addressed the African figure as classical compositions and statements, not unlike the works of Rodin, Michelangelo, and other figurative artists.   When I wanted to critique the way photographer Robert Mapplethorpe approached the image of black men (The Black Book) in stereotypical images of sexually-exploited figures, I created The African Male Museum Series and Contemporary Voices. With these two series I featured black men in a variety of spiritual and anthropological studies. Figurative studies and poetry was used to express the spiritual dynamics of the black male figure.  Contemporary voices were added, which included interviews with black men, thus, giving them the opportunity to address their own lives in their own words, from their own hearts. I have continued this thematic as an ongoing series and expanded it to men of the African Diaspora.

My interest in recent years has been to travel and document the legacies of the cultures that have descendents of the African Diaspora.   My travels to Central and South America revealed the presence of a greater number of African descendents than in North America, especially in Brazil and Colombia. African Descendents may also be found in Peru, Bolivia, Chile, New Guinea, Mexico, Nicaragua and numerous points in-between. Recent archeological and anthropological research even point to an African presence in China and Korea. What is becoming clearer, now, is that people of the African Diaspora are represented in most parts of the world.

In 2008, my travels took me to Cartagena, Colombia, which is in on the Atlantic coast. Upon my arrival, I immediately noticed the prevalence of dark-skinned people, who were described to me as Afro-Colombians. Their numbers make up a third of the population in Cartagena.   Even more surprising, the population of Afro-Colombians in Cali, in the highlands, is about fifty-percent.   My first question was “How did I not know about these people?”   What I learned was that Colombia ranked third, behind Brazil and North American, in the numbers of people of African Descent in the Americas. Brazil has the largest population of people of African Descent outside the continent of Africa.  Black people have been present in the Americas since the 16th century, when the Spanish brought them over as slaves. Sugarcane, cattle, gold, coffee beans and other tropical products were major exports to Europe.

During my visit to Colombia, I went to a small village called Palenque de San Basilio, which is approximately 60 miles south of Cartagena. Palenque, along with other African villages, was born out of the struggle for freedom by former Afro-Columbian slaves. In fact the term Palenque means Walled City. In 2005, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) proclaimed Palenque de San Basilio a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”

Palenque, with approximately 3500 inhabitants, resembles many small rural villages that I have visited in Nigeria and Ghana in West Africa. Upon my arrival, there was little to distinguish it from Africa, besides the signage written in the local Spanish/Creole language called Palenquero. Also, the people appeared to reflect not only their African heritage but also the mixture of Native Indian and Spanish lineage. However, these Afro-Colombians have managed to maintain their distinctive culture, preserved from the areas of their ancestral birth in Angola and the Congo.

The villagers, mostly traditional farmers, grow palm trees for the production of palm oil. Bananas and other produce are also grown in these areas. However, powerful Spanish Colombians have encroached on their land and rights of sovereignty. The growth of vast sugarcane plantations is partly to blame for the take over of their lands. These communities rank as some of the poorest in Colombia, which puts them at odds with the Central Government, who often ignores their human rights.  However, their resilience is remarkable as they acknowledge the legacy of their ancestry and the continuity of their existence. These photographs are but the slightest glimpse into the lives of the Palenque residents and their village during my visit in 2008.

In 2009/2010, I have traveled to Toronto, Canada and Bocas Del Toro, Panama, exploring the presence of African Descendents in these regions. I hope to continue my studies on several continents and islands in the future.

  • Rhoweber

    Congratulations on doing important work. Those faces are important to capture. Keep telling your stories with the camera lens.

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