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The Art of Community

Making my way up the crowded stairway toward Web of Life (1958) -- one of two powerful murals that mark the entrance to the Museum of Fine Arts' exhibit The Art of John Biggers: View from the Upper Room -- I couldn't help but notice a small group of African-American women closely examining its images and symbols. As a young mother holding a child at her hip spoke reverently about the act of creation, two elders, heads wrapped in colorful scarves, pointed with their canes to the central image of mother and child inside the earth's womb. They traced in the air the sheltering roots that simultaneously feed upon and sustain life, then moved on to the Quilting Party (1981), a monumental work fusing African and African-American imagery in an epic view of past, present and future. Woven into its patchwork pattern are dozens of figures and symbols, from bees carrying small houses filled with honey to dancing women that represent three generations -- ancestors, parents, children.

The young mother related to the older women that, as a child, John Biggers frequently watched the elder women in the community make quilts. One of his first art experiences involved choosing the color of cloth and cutting the triangles for those quilts. The two elders slowly traversed the length of the mural, carefully pointing to images of turtles, shotgun houses, iron pots and musical instruments, as well as the geometric quilt patterns decorated with stars, animals and plants.

Viewing their heritage, their lives, rhythmically unfold before them, the three women seemed recipients of a poetic language that's spoken soul to soul. For Biggers, an important part of self-identity is the relationship of families, both immediate and extended, of all communities, all mankind, all races. Accordingly, his works have aimed to capture the universal force that binds people together, the passages that take place in the growth and development of everyone's life, including his own.

For some five decades, John Biggers' mission has been to recount different chapters of the black American experience in visual terms, a bittersweet saga that is the expression of a great collective will. The youngest of seven children, Biggers was born into rural poverty on April 13, 1924, in Gastonia, North Carolina. His father, a preacher and teacher, stressed the importance of education; his mother took in laundry to help support the family, which represented a sheltered inner circle. Biggers studied at the Hampton Institute with Viktor Lowenfeld, a pioneer of modern art education. An Austrian Jew who had been forced to leave Europe because of Nazi persecution, Lowenfeld urged his students to discover the culture and creativity of their own people. Through his association with Lowenfeld, Biggers was able to stretch his visual awareness and perfect his technical skills as a draftsman. Biggers went on to earn a Ph.D. at Pennsylvania State University; in 1949, he accepted an offer to establish an art department at Texas Southern University.

For more than three decades at TSU, Biggers was a powerful influence on black Houston artists. He had hoped that by coming to Houston he could be closer to the works of his heroes, the Mexican mural painters Orozco, Siqueiros and Rivera. Instead, he encountered self-contempt and a lack of identity among his black students. In those days, digging for African roots was met with antagonism. Nevertheless, Biggers dug, and helped change the concept of black heritage from images of poverty to new perceptions of honest, simple dignity. Biggers instilled strong values of self-respect in his students, imparting a philosophy of artistic development that reinforced the fundamentals of black family life. At the same time, he encouraged students to create from their own experiences and draw on community surroundings and activities for their subject matter.

At the same time Biggers was doing this, he was also establishing himself as a major Texas artist. Murals served as the perfect vehicle for reaching not just his students, but the entire community. Throughout his career, Biggers has painted murals -- intensely spiritual works that link African heritage with contemporary American life through bold and dramatic images ranging from field workers and longshoremen to Houston ghettos and African markets -- to present complex ideas and history in accessible visual terms. Still, when Biggers won a purchase prize in 1950 for the MFA's 25th Annual Exhibition of works by Houston artists, local racial restrictions prevented him from personally accepting the award; the restriction was dropped the next year. Sponsored by a UNESCO fellowship in 1957, Biggers was one of the first black American artists to visit Africa, where he enhanced his expanding ancestral awareness. As such, his drawings and paintings from this period focused on the people of Africa -- women in the markets, elders, fishermen -- and their relationship to the land. In the ensuing years, Biggers aimed to further synthesize both his own experience as an African-American, and his source of inspiration, Africa itself. Increasingly, he sought to convey how all life forms are interrelated by distilling them to a symbolic essence.

The MFA's current exhibit is the first major retrospective of this pioneering Houston artist. Featuring 127 works, including four large-scale murals, it traces the development of his career over the last half-century. "The Art of John Biggers: View from the Upper Room" is also the first exhibition to focus on an African-American artist whose development is tied to the southern United States and who has strong aesthetic links with Africa.

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