The Art of Community

JB: "The Black Male" was a terrible show, very negative. One of the worst things I've ever seen. I think they're way off the bat-- it's artificial. The young African-Americans are born here just like me. They'll come along when they come along. But I don't quite understand what all of this is supposed to mean. I think they're all caught up in the market. Everything we're talking about has to do with the market. Buying and selling. I did not create for that reason.

SK: Maybe people need to be reminded about market practices versus the importance of creativity. African-American expressions have changed, yet some viewers hold steadfast to the definitions they had 20 or 30 years ago. And when viewers look at work by African-American artists, they're seeking out those same definitions.

JB: With this discussion it seems to me that there is no consciousness out there at all of what has happened historically in this country. As if this is something that's popped up! Well how did it pop up? Well it's been here all the time. I don't understand what this is all about. It seems to be a way to sell tennis shoes. That's what shocks.

SK: Dr. Biggers, you retired in 1983. So perhaps you've had some time to reflect upon the years spent at TSU and to observe the community, in addition to working in your studio. How is a place assured for African-American culture? Must African-Americans investigate ways to expose, educate and make acceptable to different peoples their cultural production? Don't professionally experienced blacks need to be placed in positions that allow them to be interpreters of African-American culture as well as culture across the board?

JB: If you go into the small gallery ("John Biggers: The Artist's Eye"), you'll see the responsibility I've taken toward world art history through works by artists who have inspired me over the last 35 years. There are three examples in the little exhibit by my former students, now important Houston artists -- Bert Samples, Harvey Johnson, and Earlie Hudnall -- to show the continuation at TSU.

SK: But what about the next generation? Do you have any thoughts about the kinds of problems they'll be confronting? Can they create work that is true to themselves and at the same time fulfill their desires to create art through an aesthetic learned outside of the African-American community?

JB: These are things that you would go out and find. That is not for me to talk about. All the questions you're asking me, I don't know. I wouldn't want to give an opinion. When I retired, I went to North Carolina and Virginia to work. I was gone for awhile and I'm back for this exhibition ... I think of myself as an artist, not as an educator.

SK: But doesn't the public perceive you as both in some ways?
JB: I don't know what the public perceives, but I do know I worked very hard to be an artist. It's been 15 years since I was a teacher. I've got a whole other life.

SK: But haven't you thought about the state of education in this country? Do you talk to your colleagues about where things stand?

JB: No, I'm just trying to paint and that's all. I can't talk about education.

SK: Besides alternative spaces and cooperatives, what are the avenues of support? Students went to Dr. Biggers for support, but does it largely come from within the communities? How do African-American artists find support within their communities while maintaining support in the mainstream?

JB: We could say, oh, yes, there are artists motivated by the mainstream, or artists motivated by their personal world. But I had purposes that I would not feel good stating to motivate students to follow my lifestyle. I had to have convictions about the art to give me inspiration to get the pulse of my community in terms of their spiritual values -- where they wanted to struggle to get. This is the way I looked at my world. And I have been inspired by the great Mexican painters -- Siqueiros, Rivera, Orozco. I have been inspired by the catacombs in Germany. I have been inspired by Albrecht Durer. In the art curriculum you teach students about all of these movements in the history of art. I don't quite understand the emphasis some of these people try to place now. I'm hoping the wisdom is in my pictures. There's 50 years of work out there.

SK: If you went into the African-American community here, could most people tell you the names of Houston African-American artists, such as George Smith, Jesse Lott and Carroll Simms? Were you a household name before this exhibition?

JB: My colleague answered that question 30 years ago. We were trying to raise money to do our projects at TSU. We wanted to put our sculptures and mosaics on the outside of a building. So a Realtor said, "I'll give you a dollar for every dollar you and the community raise." My partner said, "No, I'm sorry. I won't accept that. It sounds fair, but many of my folks are just at the stage of buying a house or buying a car, of having clothes for Sunday and clothes for every day. If I would go downtown on Main Street, in front of Foley's and Sakowitz, and if I asked the average person down there, where is the Museum of Fine Arts, none of them would be able to tell me. And they would not be black people. So I don't need to be asking people in my community, because I'm seeing the majority are just being able to buy homes or cars. They don't have any money to give to art at this stage of the game". So my partner told this very rich person, "I won't ask you for any more money, then, if you don't want to give us any -- just forget about it." He replied, "No, I'll give you some." So that's all relatively the same. Sure, certain things have changed, but you have to take a gauge of the whole culture. You see, we're talking about the patrons. Patrons have dealt with art of the Western world, from the religious angle or from whatever angle. It's always been the patrons.

"The Art of John Biggers: View from the Upper Room" will show through September 3 at the Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet, 526-1361.

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