Josephine Sho' Can Dance, 1991
Floyd Newsum, American, born 1950
Acrylic, oil stick and collage on paper
Sheet: 67 3/4 × 89 3/4 in. (172.1 × 228 cm)
Museum purchase funded by Crowley, Marks & Douglas in memory of A.Y. Woodard
Habits of Mind
- SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
Josephine Sho' Can Dance
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
Floyd Elbert Newsum, Jr., is known for his use of rich tropical colors in semiabstract compositions. Reflecting his Af rican-American heritage, European Modernism, and the celebratory spirit of the Harlem Renaissance, Newsum’s art draws upon aspects of surrealism, folk art, and the collages of Henri Matisse (1869–1954). Originally from Memphis, Tennessee, Newsum graduated from the Memphis Academy of Art and earned his master’s degree in fine arts from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia. He moved to Texas in 1976, having accepted a teaching position at the University of Houston. Newsum’s work has been featured in Emerging Artists of the Southwest at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; Breaking into the Mainstream: Texas African-American Artists at the Irving Arts Center; and exhibitions at the Af rican American Museum in Dallas and DiverseWorks Artspace in Houston.
Josephine Sho’ Can Dance pays homage to Josephine Baker (1906–1975), the legendary black dancer and entertainer. In 1925 Baker fled the racism of America for the artistic freedom of France, where she became an overnight sensation. She was hailed for her exotic dancing, uninhibited sexuality, and negligible attire. In this painting, Newsum included brown paper cutouts of bananas in tribute to Baker’s famous banana skirt. The color palette and compositional choices also recall West African textiles.
In its subject matter and in its modern approach, this painting is clearly grounded in the Harlem Renaissance. To create the work, Newsum placed nine sheets of hand-colored paper onto a board as a grid to frame distinct images of Baker and the banana cutouts. The paper was colored through a technique called pochoir, in which cut metal stencils or screens are laid against paper before ink or paint is squeegeed, brushed, or rolled over it. During the mid-19th century, pochoir was used predominately in the manufacture of advertisements and labels. Matisse began using the process in his Jazz series, when he could find no paper in the pure colors that he sought.
Josephine Baker remains one of the most acclaimed African-American women of her time, as well as one of the most controversial. Inspired to create this work after watching a movie about the dancer’s life, Newsum drew upon the contradictions surrounding her career. Baker had achieved success during a time when white vaudeville entertainers wore blackface (a thick black makeup) while caricaturing the singing and dancing of black minstrels. Yet the work also speaks to how Baker’s success was achieved, and at what cost to her integrity and to her principles as an African-American woman. Josephine Sho’ Can Dance is just one of several paintings in which Newsum celebrates women while also expressing his difficulty with understanding them, both as a group and as individuals.
- Describe Newsum’s color choice. What words, associations, or feelings do they evoke? Is the feeling the same across the entire image, or are there certain areas that feel different?
- Newsum was a highly acclaimed and well-trained artist. What kinds of lines did he use in this piece? How do they make you feel; what do they make you think of?
- Describe the woman (or women) in the image. What words would you use to describe them? Why do you think Newsum chose them as subject for this work?
- How did Newsum choose to organize the space in this work?
- Think of, look for, or research other famous paintings of dancers throughout art history. How are they different from this one? How are they similar? What can we guess about the way Newsum wanted to depict Josephine?
- This painting is named after Josephine Baker, an African-American dancer of the 1920s and 30s, who left America for France and became extremely famous for her uninhibited dancing style—to European audiences, it was exotic and exciting. Knowing that, why do you think Newsum chose the colors and style that he did?
- Why do you think Baker is depicted several times in this work? What is the significance of the grid layout?
• Research the work of the French artist Henri Matisse. In what ways do you think Newsum was influenced by Matisse’s style and approach to art? What aspects of Newsum’s work can be found in that of Matisse?
• Newsum has said that he was influenced by the color palette of African textiles. Research these textiles and compare their colors to those used by Newsum. Imagine if the artist had created this work using only dark colors. How would this alter the effect of the painting?
• Use the Internet (try npr.org) to research the quilts of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, a predominately African-American community. How does Newsum’s work compare to those quilts? Note the size of Newsum’s painting and the size of the quilts.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.