The Art of Community

There's no doubt that as the history of African-American art becomes more clearly defined, the work of John Biggers will emerge as a fundamental chapter. At its best, Biggers' work avoids both propaganda and sentimentality, distilling an immense story of cultural and social cause and effect into images in which form, hue and brilliant pattern give the forces of humanity an uncanny emotional immediacy. But while Biggers is a good storyteller, he's not a great painter. And unfortunately, this show includes too many works of less than compelling visual quality and less than compelling narrative.

Often, the exhibition becomes so bogged down in historicizing the artist with time lines, biographical data and elaborate wall labels, that the more powerful examples of his work are overshadowed. Moreover, the show is simply too large, with little or no breathing room between works, which are butted up against one another or placed in a "grab bag" of mazelike galleries.

With many works hung out of thematic and chronological order, it's difficult to follow any clear-cut pathway. That's a pity, because if there's a lesson in the broad shape of this circulation of cultures, it is surely that we are already contaminated by each other, that there is no longer a pure African culture awaiting salvage by our artists, just as there is no American culture without African roots.

During his formative years, Biggers didn't shrink from or gloss over the hard truths. But as his symbolic language coalesced, Biggers appears to have become increasingly disconnected from social and cultural change. While the exhibition begins with images of powerful, demonic struggle, it ends with idealized, if cliched, symbols from never-never land. Even though Biggers' rows of shotgun houses are stunningly surreal, they no longer depict the African-American community -- or Africa -- but rather some utopia.

Admirably, Biggers has spent an entire career examining and re-examining universal themes. And I'm not begrudging Biggers' well-deserved moment in the museum world's sun. But this exhibition demonstrates how easily what began as a desire to redress years of neglect and distortion can slip into a sort of public relations campaign that can make any project seem suspect, if a little sappy. Tragedy is turned into a sort of romance by dint of contrast, simplification and glorification. Is it the Roots syndrome? Granted, a generous spirit makes up for past abuses with present assistance, but in the hopes of dignifying a community the result may also obscure frank talking and thinking.

Those were some of the issues raised during a talk with Biggers, who, at 71, continues to be a prolific artist, dividing his time between Houston and Gastonia. Biggers took time from his hectic schedule to discuss his feelings toward the MFA exhibition, as well as the overwhelming community response to it. This interview, which took place in the exhibition's resource gallery, revealed some surprising views about social and cultural issues affecting young African-American artists.

Susie Kalil: In what way is this exhibition a revelation for the community members who've known you and your work for years?

John Biggers: I suppose that it's a wonderful experience to have your community embrace what you do, because it shows a regard. To some extent, the community is like an extended family, if you have used that community as a research embodiment and you've reached into it all the time. I hope that's what my work has meant, that I reached into my community and the depths of their beliefs and spirituality. I tried to express something of their will, their faith, their struggle and not be in opposition to it.

SK: This exhibition not only gives shape to an entire career, but also enables us to take stock of where we are. At this time, it might be constructive to hear what you have to say about issues affecting African-American artists. During the last few years, there's been a concentrated effort to exhibit African-American art. Are institutions embracing a multicultural program because of funding? Or is it a realization that institutions need to better serve their communities, lest the constituents choose not to walk through the doors? Even though the work may have merit, how do we know the attention isn't for political reasons, isn't about quota, or guilt?

JB: I don't agree that just now something's happening. We had our first exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum back in the early '50s. At that time there was wonderful recognition by the total community of what we were doing at TSU. We participated in the Annual shows at the MFA here and in Dallas. I had been written up nationally. I had exhibited in New York and with the Houston artists in some of the best shows in the country. An international drawing show had come to Houston and my work was chosen to be in it. There had been complete recognition and not just by the black community. But then things stopped. I don't know what happened to the community, but I kept on working.

SK: Last year, New York's Whitney Museum organized a controversial exhibition called "The Black Male," which focused on the so-called "transformation" of the black male image and its role in how we determine the meanings of race, gender and sexuality. Do issues of identity tend to be seen as only a minority issue? Is it harder to validate art that doesn't fit the Eurocentric perceptions of who black people are?

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