Symposium Gives a Nod to Howard University and Local Artists, Scholars and Curators Who Shaped Field
FOR DECADES, HOWARD UNIVERSITY in Washington, D.C., was at the center of the African American art world. When Alma Thomas graduated with a BS from Howard University in 1924, she was the first student to earn a fine arts degree from the school’s fledgling art department. She entered Howard as a home economics student and was encouraged to change her major by James W. Herring, who founded the department in 1921. Thomas studied under Herring, as did James A. Porter who graduated from the program in 1927. He was subsequently hired to teach painting and drawing at Howard, and eventually ran the art department from 1953-70. An artist and a scholar, Porter is credited with establishing the field of African American art history.
James Lesesne Wells joined Porter on the faculty in 1929. His courses included ceramics, sculpture, and printmaking. Painter and textile designer Lois Mailou Jones (below) accepted a teaching position in 1930. She was a professor of design at Howard for half a century and taught generations of artists and future art instructors, including David C. Driskell, Elizabeth Catlett, and Sylvia Snowden.
In addition to founding the art department, Herring established the Howard University Gallery of Art in 1928. Fifteen years later, in 1943, Herring opened the Barnett-Aden Gallery with Alonzo Aden, curator of Howard’s art gallery. Housed in their home, it is considered one of the first black-owned art galleries in the United States. Thomas served as vice present of the gallery. Many African American artists associated with Howard showed their work at Barnett Aden. It was a creative and social haven in segregated Washington.
Alain Locke began teaching English at Howard University in 1912. After earning a doctorate in philosophy from Harvard, Locke returned to Howard where he became chair of the philosophy department in 1921, the same year the art department was founded. Courses on race relations led to Locke’s dismissal in 1925. He was reinstated in 1928, holding the top post in the philosophy department until his retirement in 1953.
In the intervening years, he wrote about cultural life in Harlem, expanding a 1925 article in Survey Graphic into an anthology titled “The New Negro.” The book is considered a manifesto for the Harlem Renaissance, a historic flourishing of African American art and culture. Harlem was in vogue. All the while, Locke was a fixture at Howard in the nation’s capital.
HOWARD’S GROUNDBREAKING CONTRIBUTIONS to African American art history and association with the scholars and artists who helped shape the field, were explored in depth at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) last month (March 16-17). “The African American Art World in Twentieth-Century Washington, D.C.,” was organized by the museum’s Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA). The two-day symposium considered Howard and the broader spectrum of influence in the city in the 20th century. The 500-seat auditorium was nearly full both days with students, artists, scholars, curators, collectors, gallery owners, museum goers and museum staff, among the audience members.
Elizabeth Cropper, dean of CASVA, opened the program and explained the genesis for the symposium was the National Gallery of Art’s acquisition of the Evans-Tibbs Collection of African American art in 2015. (NGA accessioned more than 6,000 works of art from Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art when it closed. The cache included about 200 works by African American artists, among them, the entire Evans-Tibbs collection of 33 works by artists such as Thomas, Aaron Douglas, and Henry O. Tanner, with related reference materials.)
“I would just like to say, quite simply, how very pleased we are to be able to welcome you all here and how proud we are to support new work about an important place and time in our nation’s history. The mid-20th century is not so far away, but so much of knowledge of the history of art and culture in African American Washington, D.C., could be lost if we don’t catch it and catch its importance,” Cropper said. “Thurlow Evans-Tibbs understood that in making his gifts and we want to emphasize our commitment to that as caretakers of his gift for another generation.”
“The mid-20th century is not so far away, but so much of knowledge of the history of art and culture in African American Washington, D.C., could be lost if we don’t catch it and catch its importance.”
— Elizabeth Cropper, Dean of CASVA
Clockwise, from top left, Presenters included Curator Lauren Haynes of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art; Prof. Richard Powell of Duke University; Curator Paul Gardullo of Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC); Prof. Robert O’Meally of Columbia University; Curator Tuliza Fleming of NMAAHC; and Curator Elsa Smithgall of Phillips Collection.
THE PROGRAM FEATURED CURATORS from four local institutions—the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), the Phillips Collection, National Gallery of Art, and Howard University. Kinshasha Hollman Conwill, deputy director of NMAAHC and a Howard alum, and Huey Copeland of Northwestern University, were among the moderators. Presenters included Jacqueline Serwer, chief curator of NMAAHC; Robert O’Meally of Columbia University; Lauren Haynes of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art; and Richard Powell of Duke University.
A gathering of eight African American artists for a discussion moderated by curator Ruth Fine was the highlight of the symposium. The panel featured Driskell, Snowden, Lilian Thomas Burwell, Floyd Coleman, Sam Gilliam, Keith A. Morrison, Martin Puryear, and Lou Stovall. Ranging in age from 74 to 89, the group represents a range of disciplines, career choices and trajectories. Many attended or taught at Howard. Some were close friends and all were familiar with one another, and in some cases recalled poignant anecdotes and memories about their shared experiences.
The timing for the symposium was propitious. In addition to celebrating the Evans-Tibbs acquisition, Cropper said the gathering was a nod to the Smithsonian’s new African American museum. CASVA “wanted to salute our new neighbors on the mall. This meeting is also intended as a tribute to them and their continued success,” she said. At the same time, the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum turns 50 this year, and Howard is marking a milestone too, she noted.
“Howard has played a vital role in the artistic life of this city and the nation. Several of our speakers in these days and artist participants will surely testify to that,” Cropper said. “It’s an added joy that Howard celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, which puts our more recent arrival in perspective. The symposium is also intended to honor Howard University, its gallery, and its artists.”
In the contemporary moment, as it celebrates its sesquicentennial, Howard faces profound fiscal challenges and is saddled with bureaucratic dysfunction. There is no doubt, however, about its formative legacy in the field of African American art, which continues through its own scholarly gathering, the annual Porter Colloquium, slated for April 7-9 this year.
AT THE CASVA SYMPOSIUM, scholars and curators presented new and ongoing research. The first speaker, Gwen Everett, associate dean of Howard’s department of fine arts and director of the gallery, recounted the history of the Howard University Gallery of Art. A professor of art history at Santa Clara University, Tobias Wofford followed, delving into Locke’s African art collection which was acquired by Howard after his death. Later in the symposium, Jeffrey Stewart of the University of California, Santa Barbara, considered the social sculpture of Locke and Ed Love, a Los Angeles-born artist who taught at Howard from 1968-1987.
Paul Gardullo, a curator at NMAAHC, discussed legendary Washington photographer Addison Scurlock. His presentation was titled “Positioning the Race: The Scurlock Studio and the Development of a New Negro Aesthetic Through Photography.” Gardullo gave an engaging and insightful overview of the family business and its cultural impact.
Scurlock Studio was located on U Street in the heart of the black community for more than 60 years. (Construction of the city’s Metro forced it to move.) It continued to thrive for another two decades under the stewardship of his sons.
Scurlock depicted his subjects with dignity and sophistication, a look defined by a combination of light, shadow, posing, and retouching. Locke, Sterling Brown, Charles Hamilton Houston, Lillian Evans Tibbs, and W.E.B. Du Bois, were among his sitters. For decades, Scurlock was the official photographer of Howard University.
“From 1911 to 1994 across most of the 20th century there the Scurlock photographers Addison and his sons George and Robert captured and captivated their city of Washington, D.C., picturing individuals, families, groups and businesses at weddings, graduations, and meetings. They helped provide a visual narrative for the construction of a new black identity in the opening decades of the 20th century, an identity expressed in the ideas of the New Negro Movement with its commitment to black pride, solidarity, and a demand for racial fairness,” Gardullo said.
“[The Scurlocks] helped provide a visual narrative for the construction of a new black identity in the opening decades of the 20th century, an identity expressed in the ideas of the New Negro Movement with its commitment to black pride, solidarity, and a demand for racial fairness.”
— NMAAHC Curator Paul Gardullo
Gardullo’s colleague continued the discussion of Scurlock Studio. In a later presentation, Rhea L. Combs, a film and photography curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, shared how Scurlock’s sons Robert and George carried the business forward in the mid-20th century.
THE EVANS-TIBBS COLLECTION catalog was the focus on the next presentation. Jacqueline Francis of the California College of the Art explored the 1989 publication “African-American Artists, 1880-1987: Selections From the Evans-Tibbs Collection,” which accompanied the Smithsonian traveling exhibition. She was unable to attend the symposium, so Theresa O’Malley read her paper. O’Malley is associate dean of CASVA.
Francis said she interviewed Thurlow Tibbs Jr., in the 1990s. Tibbs was a Washington art dealer. He earned a masters in city planning from Harvard University and worked for an engineering firm for a few years, and the General Services Administration, before leaving to open an art gallery in 1989. The gallery was housed in the home near Logan Circle his family had owned since 1904. The Evans-Tibbs collection began with paintings Tibbs inherited from his grandmother, Lillian Evans Tibbs, an acclaimed lyric soprano.
Tibbs and Francis spoke by phone about his collection and he invited her to visit and view the works in his Vermont Avenue home, which she did. He died young, shortly thereafter, in 1997 at age 44.
She reviewed the 1974 Barnett Aden catalog and discussed, in depth, the contributions to the Evans-Tibbs catalog by Guy C. McElroy, Richard J. Powell, Sharon F. Patton, and David C. Driskell, who wrote the introduction. The presentation concluded with a reference to the weight of legacy. “I suggest that Thurlow Tibbs Jr. who modeled the Evans-Tibbs Collection after the Barnett Aden Collection, whose founders modeled it after the Phillips Collection, created legacy as something with which we must contend because it is too much to ignore,” Francis wrote.
DOCUMENTING ROMARE BEARDEN’S political cartoons, “Black Ink” by Amy Kirschke is expected to be published next year. Bearden’s “Black Legion” cartoons appeared in the Baltimore Afro-American from 1935-1937. A professor of art history at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Kirschke broadened her research for the symposium presentation, exploring the work of African American political cartoonists in later decades, from 1940-1970.
She discussed E. Simms Campbell, the first black syndicated cartoonist whose work appeared on the cover of The New Yorker and in the pages of Esquire. Melvin Tapley was the arts editor at the Amsterdam News in New York and drew cartoons for the black newspaper from the 1940s to 1990s. The artists weighed in on World War II, race relations, and civil rights matters. Like Bearden, Luther Francis Yancey was published in the Baltimore newspaper, as was Tom Stockett, who worked at the Baltimore Afro-American for more than 50 years.
DUNCAN PHILLIPS FOUNDED the Phillips Memorial Art Gallery in 1921. Elsa Smithgall, curator of what is now the Phillips Collection, discussed his embrace of “many methods of seeing and painting” in a talk titled “Art Means Integration: Duncan Phillips’s Galvanizing Vision for The Phillips Collection.” The Washington, D.C., museum is a pioneer, having acquired works by African American artists since the 1930s when it brought two paintings by James Lesesne Wells into its collection.
The ensuing wartime climate encouraged Phillips’s vision. “During a dark hour in humanity’s fight for freedom during World War II, Duncan Phillips fervently affirmed his belief in the universality of art as a unifying force.…,” she wrote in her abstract.
When Duncan Phillips purchased half of Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series” from the Downtown Gallery in 1942, it was a testament to the visual impact and narrative power of the painter’s work. According to Smithgall, Phillips traveled to the New York gallery to view paintings by Horace Pippin, but shifted course when he saw the series by Lawrence, then a young artist showing in a New York gallery for the first time. He would soon revisit Pippin, acquiring “Domino Players” in 1943. The museum also added works by Richmond Barthe, Allan Rohan Crite, and Washington artists Laura Douglas, Sam Gilliam, Lois Mailou Jones, and Alma Thomas.
Duncan Phillips traveled to the Downtown Gallery in New York to view paintings by Horace Pippin, but shifted course when he saw the “Migration Series” by Jacob Lawrence, then a young artist showing in a New York gallery for the first time.
The museum is presenting JACOB LAWRENCE’s The Migration Series for the first time in two decades on the West Coast. Shown, “The Migration Series, Panel 3: From every southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north.,” 1940–41 (casein tempera on hardboard). | Acquired 1942, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., © 2016 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY
BEFORE GIVING HIS PRESENTATION about Duke Ellington and the “realm of the visual,” Robert O’Meally injected some reality into the program, reminding everyone of the politics looming right outside the museum. “We are here at a time of emergency in the city, the nation, and the world. When our political institutions fail us, it is our responsibility to defy…” said O’Meally, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University where he founded the Center for Jazz Studies. We need to stand for humanity, he said, “stand together on behalf of the arts and sciences.”
Lauren Haynes, contemporary art curator at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, talked about “Alma Thomas’s Washington D.C.” Haynes co-curated the recent “Alma Thomas” survey presented at the Tang Museum and Studio Museum in Harlem, and co-authored the accompanying catalog.
She offered an overview of Thomas’s life, practice, and work as an educator. She was a public school teacher at Shaw Junior High School in Washington. Haynes said Thomas taught in the same classroom for 35 years and recalled that while the exhibition was on view at the Studio Museum, many people approached her and said the artist had taught them or someone in their family.
Haynes also highlighted connections Thomas had with Howard University, Barnett Aden Gallery, the Washington Color School and the many local artists who were her contemporaries.
IN 1981, THERE WAS A CONSTELLATION of black-owned galleries in Washington, D.C. There were 20 in the city, up from just nine black galleries, four years earlier. Jacqueline Serwer discussed the development in her presentation. Serwer is a veteran Washington curator. She was a curator of contemporary art at what is now the Smithsonian American Art Museum, chief curator at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and is currently chief curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The establishment of the Howard University Gallery, Barnett-Aden Gallery, and other smaller local black-owned galleries in the 1960s and 70s, Serwer said, played a role in the phenomena, over the years creating and growing the market and educating potential collectors. She described the earlier period at a “prequal to a renaissance.”
Her primary source for the gallery numbers was a Washington Post article by Bill Alexander. Kassie Edwards, Serwer’s research assistant, helped conduct further research, document the gallery presence, and create a map of the businesses.
According to the Post, 11 of the 20 galleries were “house” galleries like Barnett-Aden, which was still open at the time, with Adolphus Ealey serving as executive director. Ealey told the Post: “The white art establishment has been trying to crush us for years by determining who our artists are, but now we’re around in such numbers that we can provide the space, set our own styles and values, and market our own product.”
“The white art establishment has been trying to crush us for years by determining who our artists are, but now we’re around in such numbers that we can provide the space, set our own styles and values, and market our own product.” — Adlophus Ealey of Barnett-Aden Gallery, The Washington Post
From left, LOIS MAILOU JONES, “Self Portrait,” 1940 (casein on board). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of the artist, 2006.24.2; JAMES A. PORTER, “Self Portrait,” 1935 (oil on linen canvas). | Courtesy Swann Auction Galleries
A MELLON CURATORIAL FELLOW at the National Gallery of Art, John A. Tyson considered the careers and work of artists Lois Mailou Jones and James Porter. He described the Howard University professors as notable Washington-based artists who are under-recognized in modern American art. Tyson reviewed their artistic outputs, comparing their mastery of portraiture and landscapes, and cited their scholarly contributions. Jones, who studied in Paris, taught art classes in her studio with Celine Tabary. Known as the “Little Paris” group, participants included Alma Thomas. Porter authored essays and articles and in 1943 published “Modern Negro Art,” a seminal study tracing the arc of African American art history.
Jeff Donaldson (1932-2004) and FESTAC were the subject of Tuliza Fleming‘s presentation. She said she welcomed the opportunity to participate in the symposium because it encouraged her to research for the first time a topic in which she has great interest. She said she knew Donaldson, who co-founded AfriCobra and in 1970 became chair of Howard University’s art department and director of the art gallery. He also served as chairman-director of FESTAC’s United States Zone.
The second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, known as FESTAC ’77, convened 17,000 participants across disciplines from about 60 nations. The United States sent 500 African American artists to the month-long festival in Lagos, Nigeria, 108 were visual artists. Fleming, a visual art curator at NMAAHC, examined “the history, theoretical foundation, and impact of the festival on the aesthetic practice and philosophical perspective related to the work of American artists of African descent in the D.C. metropolitan region.”
AFTER TWO IMMERSIVE DAYS, Richard Powell closed the symposium, offering a spirited look at Washington’s black art scene in the last quarter of the 20th century. The Duke University art historian curated “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist,” and earlier served as director of programs at the Washington Project for the Arts (1987-89) and earned an MFA in printmaking from Howard.
Before launching into his talk Powell gave praise to David C. Driskell. “We’re here because he’s been here and he has cleared a path for us to think critically and inventively about not just Washington, D.C., but about arts in general,” he said.
“We’re here because he’s been here and he has cleared a path for us to think critically and inventively about not just Washington, D.C., but about arts in general.” — Richard Powell on David C. Driskell
Powell titled his presentation “A Chocolate City Reconsidered” and referenced the 1975 song “Chocolate City” by Parliament, calling it a musical tribute to Washington, D.C., the national capital and primarily African American principality:
“‘Chocolate City’ touched a deep emotional cord especially with the District’s citizens, not only acknowledging their demographic distinctions, but alluding to the city’s cultural offerings and their broad appeal. What resided behind Parliament’s playful banter and alluring rhythms in ‘Chocolate City’ was an astute observation about a recent cultural sea change in a too often overlooked location in black America. Appearing only a few months ahead of America’s bicentennial celebrations, ‘Chocolate City’ heralded Washington, D.C., as a cultural capital whose status among other artistic destinations had been growing and solidifying over the years, despite flying under the radar of so many critics and commentators. Clearly the myopial is in no small measure affected by institutional racism and its insideous ways of making what’s front and center and black disappear, such as the neighborhood underground club scene at the time, the cohort of visual and theatrical artists that emanated out of Howard University’s College of Fine Arts, and D.C.’s nascent political and assertive, expressive black masses and their spokespersons.”
In this context Powell explored the distinct practices of Washington artists Lois Mailou Jones, Roger Gouverneur, Renee Stoute, Essex Hemphill, and Jefferson Pinder, who is now based in Chicago.
“Taking cues from Lois Mailou Jones’s ‘Jenny,’ an enigmatic portrait of a black woman scaling fish, is the Chocolate City a black, brown and beige confection between Baltimore and Richmond whose cultural delights and defiant race pride with its elitism and developing sense of self through the latter part of the century and into the fin de siecle reap a multitude of conflicting artistic statements?” Powell asked.
“In any event, I think this particular metaphor, something savorous, redolent and cosmopolitan reminds us of the more sensuous elements in the Chocolate City’s art portfolio. But, in almost every instance, it’s a sweetness that couched in the every day and with a bitter after taste that speaks to the particular historical circumspections which have long defined this place and its black majority.”
“I think this particular metaphor, something savorous, redolent and cosmopolitan reminds us of the more sensuous elements in the Chocolate City’s art portfolio. …In almost every instance, it’s a sweetness that couched in the every day and with a bitter after taste that speaks to the particular historical circumspections which have long defined this place and its black majority.” — Richard Powell, Duke University
THE SYMPOSIUM PRESENTED compelling subjects and insightful perspectives about African American art in 20th century Washington from an impressive slate of artists, curators and scholars. Eager to hear from their colleagues about the topics at hand, many attended both days, not just on the day of their presentations or for a particular portion of the program. Floyd Coleman, Kinshasha Conwill, David Driskell, Gwen Everett, Ruth Fine, Paul Gardullo, Lauren Haynes, and Lou Stovall, were among those present both days.
Apparently Powell had something to do with the caliber of the presenters. Cropper concluded the program by briefly thanking all of the participants, but singled out Powell, noting his the importance of his imprimatur.
“We talked to Rick Powell very early and said, ‘Are you in on this?’ and when Rick said he was, then we knew it would be okay,” Cropper said, “because it made it possible for us then to spread our wings and think of all of the other people who would come because Rick is coming.” CT
TOP RIGHT: LOIS MAILOU JONES working on textile designs (c.1927). | Howard University Archives via National Museum of Women in the Arts
“African-American Artists 1880-1987: Selections from the Evans-Tibbs Collection” documents the Evans-Tibss Collection now held by the National Gallery of Art. Copies of “The Barnett-Aden Collection,” which accompanied a 1974 exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, are scarce. Co-edited by Lauren Haynes and Ian Berry, the exhibition catalog “Alma Thomas” A go beyond what was on view in the show, including a more expansive selection of the artist’s works. The exhibition catalog “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist,” is edited by Richard Powell, with several contributions including an essay by David C. Driskell.