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Ben Jones

Born, 1942 in New Jersey

Ben Jones was born in 1942 in New Jersey, and has spent virtually his entire adult life living and working in that state, though he has, for work and other reasons, traveled widely - Brazil, Canada, Cuba, France, Ghana, Guadeloupe, Guinea, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Mali, Martinique, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Soviet Union (as was), Spain, Togo, and so on

Though Jones has, over the past thirty years or so traveled to many parts of the African diaspora, time and again he has returned to two countries in particular - Brazil and Cuba. Looking at Jones’s work, the reasons for his intense interest in the cultures of these two countries become obvious. Because it is within Spanish-speaking communities of the African people that Jones is most creatively able to observe and interact with what he describes as ‘African spiritual traditions’. Hence his work represents and embodies a dazzling and potent fusion of different Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian aesthetics.

So looking at Jones’ work becomes a fascinating exercise in understanding and observing some of the ways in which the aesthetics and symbolism of West African (primarily Yoruba) spirituality have always been a clearly discernible part of Black culture in the Americas. By far the most striking example of this is Jones’s 1990 work, Shango Wallpaper Series #1 #2 #3. Each of these three mixed media drawings features the central motif of the two-headed axe carried by Shango, the Yoruba god of lightening and thunder. Shango is frequently depicted as a fierce, warrior-like deity and the fearsome looking axe is characterised as an unambiguous weapon of awesome potential. However, in his Shango Wallpaper Series, Jones calmly but firmly takes the axe and re-presents it as a powerful and almost sensual symbol made stronger by the attendant images of snakes, eyes, fish and birds. And instead of the axe being a harsh, monochromatic image, Jones imbibes it with a rich, (again, almost sensual) fleshy red.

Expanding on a theme that has consistently run through his work, Ben Jones takes Black men as the subject of this new series of work. Jones is keen, Jones is anxious, to engage in the process of rescuing Black men from the emotional, political, social, economic and spiritual scrap heap that the wider society has designated as being the appropriate home for them.

Jones is attempting that most monumental and awesome of tasks - the re-humanisation of Black men. In his work he attempts nothing less than the spiritual celebrating of the Black male. In his words, Jones states that his work grows out of his ‘belief that Black men need to be spiritually celebrated in a modern society that frequently views them as ‘predators and negative forces’ ‘. He further adds that the exhibition sets out to ‘emphasise the need for positive spiritual striving by Black men. The form of the work uses African, Afro-Cuban, Brazilian and American symbols to give a pan-African tone to my art. It also includes ‘fans’ using the faces of popular and unknown Black men’.

In many ways, the reference to fans depicting the faces of Black men is a definite continuation of a 1983 piece by Jones titled Stars II (15 Elements). That piece featured a row of five portraits of Black men, embellished with shield-like constructions from which flow brightly coloured ribbons. And whilst we most usually see Black men portrayed in harsh monochrome on wanted for rape/murder/robbery posters, or within a range of equally problematic media contexts, Jones here carefully chooses to make his work a dazzling exercise in colour. This work was visually referenced in the catalogue accompanying the Black Art Ancestral Legacy exhibition that toured the United States a number of years ago. In the catalogue, the attendant text stated ‘In his travels, Ben Jones ‘collects faces’. The images of Black men in this installation come from faces he has seen in the Caribbean, in Africa, and in the United States. One of the men is a journalist, another a dancer, another a musician, and the fourth a political activist. What caused Jones to pause and photograph these individuals was what he described as a very real presence, a certain kind of strength in their faces. Around these images, the artist has created a celebratory installation which [with] his interpretations of Central African masks, adorned with colourful ribbons, underscore the integrity and individuality of these men. To the artist, they are the true stars of contemporary life, those who continue with an inner determination to do something meaningful during their time on earth’.

Jones himself states ‘Celebration, inspiration, beauty, dignity, integrity, challenge, responsibility and respect are some of the qualities which come to mind for me when I reflect on the form and content of my work, and the needs of the African diaspora, the world and the universe. The art I do, whether abstract, symbolistic or representational, tries to use these qualities in balance and intention…’

Related items

click to show details of The Art of Ben Jones: Evolution - Revolution

»  The Art of Ben Jones: Evolution - Revolution

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 2011

click to show details of Ben Jones - Evolution-Revolution card

»  Ben Jones - Evolution-Revolution card

Announcement relating to an exhibition, 2011

click to show details of Black Art: Ancestral Legacy

»  Black Art: Ancestral Legacy

Book relating to a publication, 1989

click to show details of Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century

»  Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century

Book relating to a publication, 1997

Related exhibitions

»  Black Art Ancestral Legacy

Group show at Dallas Museum of Art. 1989 - 1990

Related venues

»  Dallas Museum of Art

Dallas, United States of America

»  Rich Mix Centre for the Arts

London, United Kingdom