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

New York gallery owner Michael Rosenfeld discovered Houston's vibrant interest in black art when his "African-American Masterworks" exhibit at TSU drew far greater crowds than any other stop on its tour. "That shows a hunger in Houston that doesn't exist in other cities," he says.

Peter C. Marzio, director of the MFA, says the area's relative obscurity extends to all genres of fine art. He blames this on a local economy dominated by the wholesale-oriented businesses of petroleum, agriculture and the port, which "do not communicate on a regular basis with broad audiences," he says. "Instead these industries sell goods and services to other industries. This inexperience in advertising, public relations and marketing is the heart of the city's inability to make itself known to the world."

This underdog status shows itself in the lack of a traditional African-American museum as found in most other major cities. Even Wilberforce, Ohio, established the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, before the term "African-American" was in vogue. This changing reality is reflected in plans for Houston to fill the void. Backers hope to expand the definition of the "African-American museum" to include paintings and sculpture, as well as history, the performing arts and literary and media contributions.

Biggers's arrival marked the coming of age for local black artists.
Bob Simmons, from Black Art in Houston
Biggers's arrival marked the coming of age for local black artists.
Biggers's arrival marked the coming of age for local black artists.
Bob Simmons, from Black Art in Houston
Biggers's arrival marked the coming of age for local black artists.

Ironically, the absence of such an institution is a primary reason for Houston's cornucopia of talent. Numerous black-oriented collectives, organizations and coalitions have sprouted to provide opportunities for artists to gain experience and exposure. Houston's grass roots grow deep. They stretch across Texas and beyond, attracting talent.

"For me personally, in my early days, it was even better," says Jesse Lott. "It was a smaller pool. You could be a bigger fish." Not much money -- and no shows -- were needed. "You could show work in a bar on the corner and sell two or three pieces. You could go out, cut a stick off a tree and turn it into 50 or 60 bucks. That was big then. A job, working, it could take you a week to get 50 bucks."

Lott, who is "almost 60," is unconcerned with such formalities as lists of the many mainstream galleries exhibiting his work. What he wants is for his artwork to be lived with and felt. That is his impact, his success. "Some people's definition of black art is very narrow," Lott says. "The key to that [definition] is whether or not the color of the artist can be determined by looking at the work. Art itself is a difficult phenomenon to categorize. Some people make art using images that are black. Some people make art about subjects that black people are interested in. Seeing is believing. Looks can be deceiving."

Lott is primarily a sculptor, taking scraps of wood, metal or anything else he can find and fashioning them into pictures and creatures that can amaze, frighten or inspire. Lott -- along with artists such as George Smith, Floyd Newsum, Michelle Barnes, Kermit Oliver and Bert Long -- was among the first generation of locals to blossom after Biggers and Simms laid the foundation. Lott says great art has always been here for those who look for it. "To some people, it still doesn't exist. It's like the tree that fell in the forest," he says. "For a long time… your work wasn't in museums and it wasn't in galleries. So you could just go into your garage, turn on the light and look all the way back to 1950. When you look at 20 years of your work, all at one time, that's how you take a step forward. So it was a hidden benefit. Now, you do something and somebody wants it. That seems like a blessing, but at the same time it's a pimp slap."

Biggers refused to be slapped around. He sometimes butted heads with the TSU administration, which routinely ignored his requisitions for simple art materials after he first arrived. Biggers also preferred not to work with art dealers or galleries, instead working directly with individuals. That's one reason why Biggers's work never got the same level of national recognition as artists like Romare Bearden or Jacob Lawrence.

"When I first met him, 20 years ago, it was amazing, because I didn't know he was a great artist. Then I suddenly realized just what he was," says Robert Galloway, a physician who established a short-lived African-American museum downtown in 1988. "One day he called me up and said, 'Hey, Bob, I'm getting ready to leave TSU, they're gonna kick me out, so you better come get some of my work 'cause they're gonna go cheap.' I went over to his house and he pulled out these masterpieces from his closet. I almost cried. I said, 'I'll take those five.' I didn't know what I had until years later." Those works have since been shown at the MFA, the former Transco Tower and other venues.

Art dealer Eugene Foney remembers a French art dealer new to Houston asking to handle some of Biggers's work. Biggers gave him several pieces. A few days later, the dealer returned them. "The guy told Dr. Biggers that there was a lot of interest in his work, but that unnamed people had told him he shouldn't be handling Biggers's art," Foney remembers.

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