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by Victor M. Cassidy
|Following the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, colleges and universities were founded to educate former slaves and free blacks. These institutions, which today are termed Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), have trained many of the most prominent black professionals in the United States today -- judges, lawyers, teachers, political leaders and more.
Some HBCUs have art museums. "To Conserve a Legacy: American Art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities" is an exhibition of more than 200 works by 96 men and women drawn from the collections of six HBCUs. These are Clark Atlanta University in Georgia; Fisk University, Nashville, Tenn.; Hampton University, Hampton, Va.; Howard University, Washington, D.C.; North Carolina Central University, Durham; and Tuskegee University, Tuskegee, Ala.
"Legacy" stopped at the Art Institute of Chicago during March and April as part of a national tour; it will be on view at the Clark Atlanta University Art Gallery with the High Museum, Atlanta, June 13.
Not a priority
As much a historical presentation as an art exhibition, "Legacy" provides glimpses of black life in the U.S. from the late 19th century until after World War Two. We see the generations of black people that overcame crushing obstacles to prepare the way for the civil rights breakthroughs of the 1960s. The optimism and purposeful self-confidence that radiate from this show make it very attractive.
Art was not a priority at the HBCUs. The museums were run haphazardly, with perfunctory cataloging and no climate control. When "Legacy" organizers visited the six college museums to select work, they found many pieces forgotten in storage. Much of this art had to be conserved before exhibition.
Until the 1970s, most black artists existed on the margins of the art world and were consequently out of touch with contemporary trends. Though a few black artists visited Europe and experimented with 20th-century styles, figuration predominates in "Legacy." The best work is portraiture. With few exceptions, photographs in the show are documentary.
Two early black artists show little awareness of race in their work. Robert S. Duncanson (1821-1872), the first major landscape painter of color, was well known and financially successful in his day. His Classical Landscape (Time's Temple) (1854) is an imaginary scene of picturesque Greek ruins. Cottage at Pass Opposite Ben Lomond (1866) was painted during a visit to Scotland. Both works are academic in style.
The sculptor Mary Edmonia Lewis (1845-ca. 1911) had a foot in both camps. Her Forever Free (1867) incongruously depicts shows two former slaves -- a man who is clearly of African descent next to a woman with European features. Lewis' primary inspiration was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem, The Song of Hiawatha. She carved six sculptures of Hiawatha, Minehaha and other characters of this work.
The documentary photographs in "Legacy" present black life of a century ago. Class in American History, which was taken at Hampton College in 1899-1900, shows 15 students and their white teacher. All look intently at an American Indian who stands on a low platform by the teacher's desk. This man holds a peace pipe in his hands and wears the traditional regalia of a Lakota warrior--feather headdress, deerskin vest, fringed leggings and beaded moccasins.
Educating the Indian
The Lakota was both a Hampton student and an object of study there. Just 10 years after it opened, Hampton broadened its educational mandate to include American Indians. General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, founder-principal of the college, declared that the two disfranchised peoples would benefit from "mingling" because they had much in common. "The Negro has the only American music," he said. "The Indian has the only American art."
Between 1878 and 1923, Hampton educated roughly 1,300 Native Americans from more than 65 tribes. Hampton's museum collected and exhibited Indian and African artifacts so students could make comparisons and develop "race pride." This very young black institution never once doubted that it had something to offer Native Americans and that it was fully capable of teaching them. We cannot imagine such a thing happening today.
"Legacy" gives us wonderful photographs of two black leaders. We see Booker T. Washington speaking without a microphone to a large crowd in New Orleans. Another photo shows George Washington Carver, very young and dressed to the nines, standing next to a flower painting he has made. He holds palette and brushes in his remarkably long, delicate fingers.
Lifetime of work
Portraits are the glory of "Legacy." The artists give us black people as seen through black eyes, without rhetoric or sentimentality.
Frederick C. Flemister's Man With a Brush (1940) is a modern-day mannerist self-portrait that shows the artist before an open window with the landscape behind him, an empty canvas on his right, and a brush in his huge hand. The subject gazes directly at the viewer, but reveals nothing about himself and does not invite communication.
John N. Robinson's Mr. & Mrs. Barton (1942) depicts the artist's solid, dignified grandparents in their dining room. Robinson is especially successful in rendering the hands of his subjects. Both Bartons had manual jobs. Their hands had done a lifetime of work.
In Lois Mailou Jones' Jennie (1943), we see a young black woman -- actually one of Jones' painting students -- standing in a kitchen and cleaning fish. This warm, straightforward domestic image is one of the most winning in "Legacy."
Aaron Douglas was the primary illustrator of the Harlem Renaissance, the '20s literary movement that sought a powerful, independent black identity. Douglas' work was published in Crisis and Opportunity, two key movement periodicals. His ink and graphite Rebirth (1925) and Sahdji (1925) draw upon African and Egyptian sources to create fresh, positive black imagery.
Douglas sometimes went too far. His Art Deco-influenced Building More Stately Mansions (1944) combines symbols of Egyptian, Greek, Roman, African, Asian and 20th century American cultures. This painting attempts too much and just looks busy and bombastic.
Jacob Lawrence, one of the best-known artists in "Legacy," once called himself a "dynamic Cubist." Yet except for a certain flattening of perspective, his Palm Sunday (1956) hardly seems Cubistic. In this colorful and beautifully stylized work, we see a robed minister talking to a child as the congregation leaves church.
Black churches are famed for their spirited religious observances, and have traditionally furnished black leaders. The HBCUs were founded by Protestant missionaries and have always had strong religious programs. But "Legacy" has only a sprinkling of works about black religious life. It is too secular a show for the community that it represents.
Sam Gilliam connects the world of "Legacy" to the here and now. Gilliam is a color-field painter who rose to prominence during the 1960s and 1970s with his drape paintings. These are pieces of canvas daubed with color and draped on the wall without stretchers. Gilliam sharply departs from traditional flat surface painting.
When we discuss this work, we do so in terms of the many visual questions that it raises. The artist's race is irrelevant, a step in the right direction. As black people participate fully in American society, race should disappear as an issue. Today's black artist is free, as his forbears hardly were, to choose between depicting black life or making abstract visual statements. We are making progress.
VICTOR M. CASSIDY is a Chicago-based art reporter and critic.