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

"When I came here, I had a lot of time to digest," he says. "I gave myself permission to develop characters. The way I describe my studio is, I have broken my aesthetics down into characters, into modules, that I can use as pawns. It's like a game. They can battle each other, they can form teams and alliances. The major difference is that I started to develop a story, the story of what was happening here."

That story is not based on race, although he did explore those themes for a while. "It just became so dry that I didn't want to pursue it any longer. I didn't want my work talked about in some of those same dialogues. So the work started to take on a little bit more of a universal tone. That freed me up to think about things in a looser fashion."

Hancock's thought process, which he admits sounds "New Age-y," has brought him great rewards. He was included twice in the Whitney Biennial, which is like being named to an all-star team. The Whitney purchased one of his mound-drawings for a hefty sum. He is represented by one gallery in Dallas and another in New York City. He is barely 28 years old.

Hancock says his works have gone beyond the traditional definitions of black art.
Hancock says his works have gone beyond the traditional definitions of black art.

Hancock is among a group of young black Houston artists who have found the kind of mainstream acceptance and financial rewards unknown to artists more than twice their age. "It's a bit cushy," Hancock concedes. This group, which includes the likes of Robert Pruitt, Angelbert Metoyer, Karen Oliver (the daughter of Kermit Oliver), Adrian Baxter and Canem Smith, has largely been freed from the constraints of race -- if they so choose. The beauty of this new reality lies in that choice and the diversity it has created.

"The new artists will be successful as artists. Their points of origin will not matter," says Marzio, the MFA director. He recognizes, however, that race will continue to define art, as long as it continues to play a role in our society. "That is a struggle," he says, "which will burden the entire U.S. race-relations future for decades."

It's still a struggle for TSU grad Robert Pruitt of the Third Ward. "I think about the TSU legacy a lot. [I think about] the state that black people are in, the mental state. Our history is so long, and so great. And there's an ignorance about it, about where we come from. Even in 2002, people don't really realize the stature of the people that came before us. Our self-esteem collectively is really low, especially when we enter the white world. That's kind of simplified, but I don't know another way to say it."

Pruitt, 27, recently began graduate studies at the University of Texas at Austin. This summer, he will travel to Maine for the prestigious Skowhegan program. He has been cut off from his roots.

"For me, Third Ward is like this mecca of inspiration," Pruitt says. He now lives in a black neighborhood in Austin, but as far as inspiration, "it's just not as easy in this new place as it was in Houston."

Angelbert Metoyer, 24, is perhaps the best known of the new generation. While in high school, he fell in with the Project Row Houses crew, and was mentored by Michelle Barnes and Jesse Lott. His work at Project Row Houses earned him several art scholarship offers, and he chose to attend the Atlanta College of Art. His work is being bought for five-figure sums by a growing cross-section of prominent African-Americans.

"We are beginning to create a new world out of the world that is already extinct," Metoyer said in the catalog for the "Our New Day Begun" exhibition at the TSU museum. "A new world with its own vocabulary of endless information to pull from. My job must be to create the world where the answers live."

"What we need now is collectors," says Alvia Wardlaw inside the cool, modern space of the TSU museum. "That's the next challenge. We have developed the artists. The next challenge is educating the collectors, training the professionals, the curators, the art dealers. What we need is patronage and professionals. Because a museum without a director is just a building."

Toward this end, Wardlaw and TSU colleague Sarah Trotty were instrumental in creating the 5A organization, which raises money to purchase African-American art for the MFA. The group's first purchase, in 1994, was John Biggers's Study for View from the Upper Room.

If any African-American artwork soon breaks the million-dollar barrier, it could well be a massive Biggers mural.

Not that money validates an artist. Jesse Lott refuses to define success by fortunes or categories or inclusion in certain art collections. "I have no gallery representation. I don't make much money selling art. I never sold a piece for $50,000," he says. "And I feel successful. I'm doing a type of art that a certain aspect of the audience responds to. That's a success of function. I give away more work than I ever sold. I have a wide distribution, and that allows my work to affect a wide range of people."

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