Biggers Is Better
Walk in the door of the University Museum at Texas Southern University, and The Web of Life, a 1957 mural by John Biggers, magnetically draws you into the space. Tree roots extend from the central image, a mother and child in a womblike shape, to create an epic 26-foot mythic meditation on life, birth, death and the interconnectedness of nature. The complex composition of images is fluid, and the painted mural carries through the wonderful linear quality of Biggers's drawings. The work sets the tone formally and thematically for "Pass it ON: Fifty Years of Art from the Permanent Collection," the inaugural exhibition at the new TSU museum.
The museum, which opened in April, has been in the formal planning stages since 1997, but has long been a goal for the university. The permanent collection comprises work donated by every TSU art major -- a requirement of all graduates of the program -- as well as pieces donated by TSU professors, alumni and supporters. The exhibition, taken as a whole, reflects the artistic philosophy of not only TSU in general but also TSU art department founder John Biggers in particular.
Biggers founded the department in 1949, creating the first art program at a historically black Texas university. He remains incredibly influential there even after his 1986 retirement, thanks to his return visits and the TSU professors who had been his students. Biggers managed to be both a tremendously talented artist and an inspirational educator, two things that don't necessary go hand in hand. His work was presented in a long overdue 1995 retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where 45 years earlier he was not even allowed to walk in the door to accept an award because of segregation laws. His work drew inspiration from the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, sharing their social concerns; it also has ties to American regionalism. Biggers explores the African-American family and community, and African cultural roots; he focuses on the universal themes of life and passage, and he encouraged this sense of history, community and self in his students.
The TSU exhibition is presented chronologically from the 1950s through the present. Because the art is largely figurative, it serves multiple functions, as a social, political and pop-cultural record of changing times. The 1950s section has two impressive mural sketches by Biggers on display. One, The Contribution of the Negro Woman to American Life and Education (1953) -- the very title evokes a sense of its big themes and social responsibilities -- presents images of toil, prayer, love, education and sacrifice. Two evocative slice-of-life street scenes are also in the section: James Ross's The Block, 5th Ward (1959) gives you a brightly and flatly painted overhead view of a vibrant and chaotic street scene. Willie Moore's Bus Stop (1960) is a luminous and atmospheric image of a rainy pedestrian-filled night. Today they create a sense of a place and time long passed.
The '60s and '70s collections, so influenced by the civil rights movement, introduce political themes of injustice, struggle and protest, including drawings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by prominent artist Hale Woodruff. Former student and current professor Harvey Johnson presents beautifully drawn, swirling and agonizingly morphing faces in Martin Luther King and Malcolm X: Sounds of the Ghetto. Edward Mills's work focuses on the explosive events of the period, using America's most obvious patriotic symbol as a weapon; one piece shows angry and cackling white men blasting black youths with fire hoses made from an American flag. In another image, the flag is used to gag a beaten and bound black man while his wife is assaulted by salacious white men. In the background an eviscerated corpse hangs from a tree, while on the other side of the canvas, black families attend church. It's strong and graphic imagery rooted in the realities of the time.
Birds and Cattle (1972) is a student work by former TSU instructor Harry Vital. His sculptural abstraction of forms could be termed cubist, but as we all ought to know, artists such as Picasso derived cubism from observing the way objects were abstracted in African art. It's a safe bet that Vital, as a TSU student, was looking back at the original source. Which brings up an important point: The art history program at TSU attempts to compensate for the overtly Eurocentric emphasis at most university art departments. Anyone who has taken an art history survey class knows that students primarily get about 15 chapters on Western art. A smattering of "non-Western art" is lumped together at the end of the book, with maybe eight pages devoted to the artistic product of the entire continent of Africa. The paucity of material and the strategic location at the back of the book mean most classes never even get that far. Vital is presenting a "re-Africanized" cubism.
The more recent works seem increasingly less concerned with sweeping themes than with questions of personal identity, a shift reflected in the art world in general, which has mostly abandoned movements in favor of individual exploration. Additionally, the political and social climate for African-Americans is changing. Society has progressed from laws that officially discriminate against blacks to unwritten policies that still treat African-Americans differently, but in more insidious ways. The battles now fought are more subtle, and the art that deals with these issues is more personal.
Janice McCloud's painting Women (1998) addresses the issue and importance of labels in a society. The painting asks you to check a box for "Miss" or "Chick" or "Madam" or "Babe" or "Lady" or "Ms," as well as for "African" or "Colored" or "Black" or "Negro" or "Afro-American" or "African-American." The concept of choosing your identity or having one forced upon you is a provocative issue.
Leamon Green teaches at TSU, and his painting Capital (1996) is part of the exhibition. Green uses text to compose part of his painterly Corinthian column. The words are courtesy of James A. Baldwin, who quotes a joke told by Martin Luther King Jr. in a speech. It reads, "The next time whitey asks you what you think about segregation, tell him, 'Mistah, I think it's wrong, and I wish you'd do something about it by nine o'clock.' " The piece is part of a series of capitals juxtaposing text with the architectural element. The column is symbolic of governmental buildings, as well as European culture by way of its idolization of all things classical. The series contrasts the associations of "culture" with the realities of it.
The vast array of terra-cotta sculpture on display is one of the most dramatic aspects of the exhibition. The sculptures are, in large part, inspired by Carroll Harris Simms, the first African-American graduate of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, who played a seminal role in the development of the TSU art department. These are large, complex and hand-built structures created from slabs of clay. It's an incredibly difficult process to make these sculptures, one that presents elaborate engineering problems. These are a far cry from the coffee mug output of most ceramics undergraduates. The scale and imagery are impressive, and there are traces of African and Asian influences. There are portrait heads with Yoruban overtones and large anthropomorphic structures that bring to mind Malian sculpture or the ornamentation of the Shang dynasty.
"Pass it ON" is a fascinating record of a place, a teaching philosophy and the students it informed. Much of the exhibition comprises student work that is, consequently, "student work." There are some interesting pieces, but generally most artists do not consider their college output the high point of their career. It is a time for learning and exploring.
As an instructor, Biggers encouraged his pupils to find their own voice, although within a figurative and narrative framework. His early students created art with a sense of history, ancestry and community. There's a certain amount of pressure that accompanies tackling great themes: You feel a responsibility to your heritage and your community. But the world is changing, and for better or worse, the focus is now on the individual and the individual's ways of dealing with issues. The challenge for TSU, or for any art department with an influential and iconic founder, is to retain its heritage without being overwhelmed or limited by it.
"Pass it ON: Fifty Years of Art from the Permanent Collection" is on view through November. The University Museum is located in the south wing of the Fairchild Building on the TSU campus, 3100 Cleburne, (713)313-7145.
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