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

If Lott and his contemporaries are the children of Biggers, then McGee and his peers are his grandchildren. These younger artists include such names as Michael Ray Charles with his provocative pickaninnies, Museum of Printing History resident artist Charles Criner and others. They have found it easier to penetrate the establishment because they have a foundation. Yet their very success can be what limits them most.

Reviewer Shaila Dewan wrote in the Houston Press in 1998 about McGee's exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Museum: "For artists of [McGee's] generation, receiving colorblind judgment is less of a possibility than ever…he is not an artist, but a black artist, and like it or not, this fact will both work to his advantage and contribute to his isolation. That is what McGee regards as his deal with the devil."

The devil understands the fix McGee is in. "The difference over the past 50 years of history," says Contemporary Arts Museum director Marti Mayo, "is that you have a real community of artists who are less interested, perhaps, than the artists of John Biggers's generation in being identified as black artists. They are interested in being identified as artists with roots in various communities who care about and work within the community and who are clearly African-American, but also have the background and a critical dialogue and are a major part of the conversation, nationally and internationally."

CAM director Mayo says the nature of black art is changing.
Deron Neblett
CAM director Mayo says the nature of black art is changing.
Hancock, in his cluttered but creative studio, twice earned Whitney Biennial honors.
Deron Neblett
Hancock, in his cluttered but creative studio, twice earned Whitney Biennial honors.

"Black artists today are more at liberty to explore the complexities of who they are," says CAM associate curator Valerie Cassel, a Third Ward native. "In 1970, it was more a debate about what black art was. Or even what term to use: black, Afro-American, African-American. Now, at this point, we've started to embrace the complexities of all that we are. It's beyond being black and oppressed. Black is no longer monolithic. We're more at liberty to revise the definition as it's happening."

Rick Lowe, with his immensely successful Project Row Houses, has revised the definition of black art through his success in the mainstream art world. Born to Alabama sharecroppers, Lowe attended a predominantly white college before moving to Houston in 1985 and founding the Commerce Street Art Warehouse. He had shows at places like the Lawndale Art and Performance Center. In 1988, the first Texas Triennial at the CAM included Lowe's installation about a Ku Klux Klan lynching. Museum visitors -- an overwhelmingly white crowd, Lowe noticed -- paid little attention. Lowe realized that he had alienated himself from his roots. He had no black friends, did not participate in any black organizations. He was lost.

Lowe started watering his black roots. He volunteered at community organizations and enrolled at TSU. While studying Biggers's work, he learned that the lowly row house, a landmark of Houston architecture, was deeply connected to African-American life. When an entire Third Ward block of such houses was about to be torn down, Lowe stepped in and turned them into…art. Today, Project Row Houses is filled with art installations, homes for young mothers, various social programs and, above all, neighborhood residents.

Lowe has now come back to where he was before -- and then some. His work with Project Row Houses has earned him a share of the $250,000 Heinz Award prize. Harvard awarded him a fellowship. His art is exhibited internationally. He is collaborating with legendary Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. And this time around, it feels good.

"There has to be a way to reconcile being an African-American artist and being African-American," Cassel says. "If you are unabashedly African-American, you're too black for the white art world. On the other side, if you're reaching for something new and do work that's not unabashedly but conceptually black, and if the black community can't read that language, you fall into ethnic purgatory. In this context, Project Row Houses comes up again and again. It's a tool for reconciliation. It's a viable contemporary art center in the black community. Conceptually, Project Row Houses is Rick's artwork."

Trenton Doyle Hancock's artwork is… not black.

"What we see here is what I call a mound," says Hancock, pointing to a pile of debris in his studio in the Glassell School of Art. "The mounds are these creatures that live in the forest, they're half-human and half-plant. They just get bigger and bigger, they're pretty harmless creatures. They're planted in the ground like a tree. At the time I did this" -- Hancock opens a sketchbook -- "there were 14 mounds. Since then one has died, and there's 13 mounds. They communicate in bars of color or veils of color. This is called mound meat, this is the inside of the mound. This is a story about a guy, he did something bad to a mound, and a branch fell on his head and killed him. Here's a mound root system…"

Hancock was born in Paris, Texas, and figured out at age three that he would be an artist. He received his master's degree from the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia and spent a summer in Rome. Hancock was then accepted at the prestigious Glassell program, which is affiliated with the MFA.

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