From April 4 to 24, RedBud Gallery may well house the coziest, most satisfying retrospective of a renowned artist in Houston. The fact that it's been more than 25 years since the last commercial exhibit of the work of John T. Biggers (1924-2001) alone makes it a noteworthy event.
What makes it remarkable is the depth and variation conveyed in these masterfully imagined works, which sometimes seem widely varied in style but carry recurring themes and images, while reflecting the artist's evolution from the 1940's into the new millennium. "MAAME"--an African word meaning "mother of mankind"--is at once homage to the divine feminine, slice of Americana and bold reclaiming of culture, told in intricate, breath-taking detail in black and white lithographs, wood cuts, and colorful drawings and prints.
Biggers spent much of his life in Houston, but was raised in rural North Carolina. The grandson of a part African, part Cherokee slave, He attended the Hampton Institute in Virginia (now Hampton University) with the intent of becoming a plumber. But the university's founding art professor Viktor Lowenfeld, a Jewish refugee from Hitler's Austria, changed his path.
Biggers' relationship with Houston began in 1949, when he became the founding chairman of the art department of what is now Texas Southern University. Known for his stunning large-scale murals and portraits, he also created a series of images to accompany Maya Angelou's poem for President Bill Clinton's second inauguration (one of which is included here) and features Houston imagery such as the shotgun house in many of his works.
Early in his career, colleagues tried to guide him more toward European traditions that were typically the standard of the art world, but Biggers looked to the political muralists of Mexico as well as underrepresented Africa. He told an interviewer, "I wanted to get involved with and attempt to express the lifestyle and spiritual aspirations of the Black people." This attitude was not only a response to segregated America, a place in which he more than once won awards for his art, but was not allowed to attend the whites-only reception, but moved beyond acculturation to the reclamation of a wider Black identity.
In 1957, Biggers spent six months traveling to Ghana, Togo, Dahomey (now the Republic of Benin), and Nigeria on a UNESCO fellowship, and Africa's influence on his art is clear. Before, his work was more realistic as a rule--after, more stylized and symbolic. This evolution is fully evident in RedBud's exhibition; patrons with different preferences will all find something to appreciate. His portraits and skillful capturing of movement makes work like The Dancers--shown in two versions, one of which is the only silkscreen print he ever produced--move in geometric shapes, starkly vibrant. Inspired by the divine motherhood celebrated in Africa versus the more patriarch-centered constructs of the west, Biggers celebrates the everyday woman in subtle, recurring ways. The washboard as well as the shotgun house--the tools and domain of the women of his youth--are recurring images in his work, and take their place alongside heavenly structures and divine imagery.
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Biggers' work is both historical and strikingly relevant today; after all, he was creating art almost until his death in 2001. At Risk... (lithograph, 1996), for example, depicts the surreal head of an African American youth, surrounded by outside forces and harboring internal conflict that makes that "risk" palpable. In Appreciation (lithograph, 1964) is a portrait of one of his students, essentially a black Buddy Holly in realistic earnestness. Metamorphosis II (1992, lithograph) abstracts the human form, layering multiple figures over each other like a blooming flower, with cruder flowers peppering the background.
However, it is The Return (1997, colored lithograph), a bright print depicting multiple women and a shotgun house, that perhaps most fully encompasses the exhibition: the message of rediscovered identity in the African American experience, bold artistic technique and careful details to transport the viewer as well.
Gus Kopriva and the RedBud Gallery has created an inviting display in a homey, thoroughly 20th century space from multiple collectors. Such a rare retrospective of this influential artist is a must-see. And if the catering and camaraderie at the press viewing is any indication, you won't want to miss the opening reception.
John Biggers' "MAAME" shows from April 4 to 26, with an opening reception on April 4 from 6 to 9 p.m. Gallery hours are Wednesday to Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. or by appointment at 303 East 11th. Visit RedBud's website or call 713-862-2532 for more information.