Unmasked At Last

After a half-century of effort, local African-American artists are emerging to the forefront of the arts, both in Houston and nationally

The artist and his wife exited the Southern Pacific railroad station, stepped onto Franklin Street and hailed a taxi. Take us to the new university, please, the artist asked.

Where? the cab driver asked.

"Texas State University for Negroes."

Deron Neblett

Laboring in his studio, Biggers produced works only now being heralded by major galleries.
Earlie Hudnall Jr
Laboring in his studio, Biggers produced works only now being heralded by major galleries.

The driver still had no idea. The artist pulled out a piece of paper with the address and read it aloud.

Oh, yeah, the driver said. You mean out there.

The ride to the Third Ward was depressing. Clapboard houses fronted sewage-filled ditches. Barefoot children ran everywhere. Grim faces hurried nowhere, sweating in the soupy heat. The taxi stopped before a low, humble structure. The artist and his wife got out. Their feet and luggage stuck to the potholed asphalt of the parking lot.

Fairchild Hall was the only permanent edifice on the dusty campus. The one air-conditioned room belonged to the university president, R. O'Hare Lanier. The artist slowly made his way to this oasis of luxury. Lanier welcomed the man, who, at the urging of civic leader Susan McAshan, had been hired to establish an art department. After sharing ice water from sparkling crystal glasses, the artist was directed to his temporary living quarters in a doctor's home.

Art was not the doctor's favorite subject. Many blacks felt that painting pictures was a waste of time. Better to teach a practical profession, one that would provide a service and a steady, honest wage. Even white artists had trouble earning a living; how could a black man hope to survive? And the new university itself -- that was even more of a problem. Soon the doctor's disgust boiled over in an exchange later described in the book Black Art in Houston.

"Why did you come to Houston?" he demanded. "Why do you want to undermine the Negro race? Why would you want to keep Negroes separated? Don't you know how hard Negroes have fought for equal rights and equal education? Don't you know that the Texas State University for Negroes was built to provide 'separate but equal' facilities, to keep Negroes out of the state university? What right do you foreigners have coming to Texas and undermining the work of all good Negro citizens?"

The artist itched to respond, but he held his tongue. Why even attempt to explain that in order to teach art, he must create a sense of pride and identity in his students? He needed to change images of poverty into dignity. To remove blinders and rip down veils. To touch the ancestral earth of Mother Africa. To understand new truths.

The artist was John Biggers. The year was 1949 -- when black art in Houston was born.

Of course, Houston had always had black artists, just as every big and small Southern town had. White folks liked to call them self-taught. Their work was called folk art. Their virtuosity will never be known; they remain anonymous. Public schools had art instructors like Alice Webb, Horathel Hall and Fanny Holman, who taught in obscurity. But Biggers had formal training. He had a doctorate from Penn State University. He was operating under the same definitions as the mainstream. He could not be marginalized.

In 1950, sculptor Carroll Simms, the first black graduate of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, joined Biggers's fledgling art department. Fifty-two years later, Texas State University for Negroes has become Texas Southern University. Fairchild Hall has been joined by dozens of other buildings. The most magnificent is the University Museum. It comprises the south wing of Fairchild Hall, an extension of the original. Soft light filters down from the majestic ceiling through the dry, cool air. Even the massive Biggers mural Web of Life is swallowed by the expanse.

The primary story of African-American art in Houston is right here. Biggers accomplished his goals, and more, before he died in January 2001 at age 76. When Houston's Museum of Fine Arts bought its first Biggers, he could not accept the award that went with it -- the museum allowed blacks in only on certain days. Today, young black artists such as Angelbert Metoyer and Trenton Doyle Hancock have achieved tremendous "mainstream" success before the age of 30.

Biggers, by way of his richly nuanced paintings, drawings and murals, has become a giant.

But his students -- and the students of his students -- have made Houston one of the best-kept secrets in African-American art.

"People have this vision of art being New York and Los Angeles, or coming from the East Coast," says Alvia Wardlaw, a Yates High School product who is now director of the TSU museum and an MFA curator. "But it's really starting to happen for us now." Wardlaw notes that Houstonian Robert Pruitt is headed to Maine's renowned Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Trenton Doyle Hancock twice was in New York's Whitney Biennial. "And there are so many others. People are going to start taking note."

Art historian Samella Lewis of Los Angeles, author of books such as African American Art and Artists, says she has been discovering unknown black Houston artists for years. "It's definitely a best-kept secret," says Lewis. "There is a very rich array of people living there. Artists have come and gone in Houston, lived and died, and the museums and collectors across the country still don't know who they are."

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