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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.

Part of the exhibition's title refers to a widely sung African-American spiritual, "Upper Room." The song, a call to the community to come together and welcome the spirit of redemption, symbolizes the spiritual journey that each man and woman takes during a lifetime. From the beginning, Biggers' work dealt with the lives of ordinary people, the laborers upon whose backs rest the weight of their work, whose daily goal is survival, yet who out of the struggle develops a strong sense of self and an attitude of hope.

Biggers remains obsessed with the spiritual aspiration of African-Americans. The MFA's Cullinan Hall and surrounding galleries are filled with Biggers' portrayal of black life in the South -- a study of the meaning of vegetation, the landscape, the weather, the color of the South and it's people, the meaning of religion and whole cultural patterns. If anything, the retrospective effectively conveys the artist's unflagging devotion to specific themes: the black family, the black woman, man's connection to nature, the working community and spiritual renewal.

This cohesive vision enabled him to proceed in a direction not taken by his peers. While many African-American artists of his generation traveled to Europe for inspiration, Biggers chose to travel to Africa. While many African-American artists went to New York to study and refine their art, Biggers looked to the open frontiers of Texas and Mexico. Whereas many black artists embraced the European notion of the avant-garde, Biggers continued to create symbolically representational works. In the process, he achieved a certain narrative clarity: a vocabulary of visual forms that is both unmistakable and evocative.

From an early admiration of simple things -- the beauty of a white shirt coming out of a black wash pot, for example -- Biggers learned about structure and order, even the symbolic unity of art and life. As a child, Biggers helped his mother wash clothes by drawing the water, filling the tub and bringing the pot to a boil. The whole process was necessary to eke out a living, but the washboard also came to represent a baptismal rite, a washing of the soul for all of one's sins against the Earth and humanity. Significantly, the white clothes, the black pot and the red clay have formed the basis of Biggers' palette for more than 45 years. This mixture of muted color, geometric pattern and symbolic image creates a circling, fuguelike rhythm throughout the exhibition.

More often than not, Biggers seeks a balancing sense of hope in even the most dismal of human circumstances. One of the surprises in the retrospective is how well the dual themes of hope and despair hold up in the early works, their haunting and emotional power shining clear through the decades. Paintings created during the 1940s reflect the depths not only of Biggers' personal depression, but also that of all black people forced to survive in a hostile, crowded environment. In boldly conceived works, Biggers portrays the derelicts, rape victims, bag ladies and garbage men who bear with them the destructive forces of Northern ghetto life. Placed in shallow, claustrophobic spaces, these figures are defined in brooding tones and aggressive brushwork. Victim of the City #2 depicts an isolated, pathetic woman with oversized hands and feet. Her bowed head and slumped posture is that of a dead soul.

The sacred nature of ritual, the healing of the spirit, the symbolism of water as pure life are vividly communicated in Biggers' African sojourn. Jubilee: Ghana Harvest Festival (1959-63) shows people dressed in the white, gold and silver garments designed to welcome the new year. Dancing in circles, they symbolize the movement of the seasons as well as the moon and the stars. In the African drawings, there is a new feeling of spiritual connection with the earth. Biggers' lyrical use of line, combined with veils of crosshatching and densely constructed areas of darkness, imparts dignity and elegance to individuals. Their heads, for example, are seemingly shoved into our space, a sort of body-to-body experience through which we become intimate with the nose, lips, brows, even neck muscles of women such as Daughter of the Moon (1957). In Man Throttled (1968), a rope is drawn through the man's mouth and knotted at the back of his head; the forehead is a welter of spiral forms, like tree roots, illustrating the West African belief that all morals come from the head, the center of the body.

Biggers matches the people's intensity with his own expansive drawing style, their sensitivity with his own careful delineations on paper. His recurring images not only display patterns of African culture but share meaning with universal themes of community. In Going to Church (1964), Biggers uses Conte crayon to depict a group of people turned out in their Sunday best. With backs toward the viewers, they seemingly walk like gods through their neighborhood.

The community as a center of ceremonial activity also finds expression in the series of "Shotgun" and "Ascension" paintings based on geometric shapes and filled with symbolic objects and archetypal female forms. In Shotgun, Third Ward (Bringing Light to the Ghetto) (1987), row upon row of the triangular houses seemingly float behind three women in African dress. The railroad tracks before them, punctuated with turtles, crows and red birds, represent the ability to come and go, as well as a physical or racial barrier. In more recent paintings such as Seven Little Sisters (1987-89), Biggers uses the expansive order of astronomy to provide a structure for his humanistic views. Although the title refers to the Pleiades, Biggers also relates the work to the first stellar calendars, conveying the voyage of life through the female. Here, the movement of the sun begins and ends with the wash pot, the symbol for matriarchy, cleansing and purification.

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?

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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