FROM LOS ANGELES TO BOSTON, it’s graduation season. Joining two of this year’s most popular commencement speakers—President Obama (Howard University, Rutgers University, Air Force Academy) and “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda (University of Pennsylvania)—Nick Cave, Melvin Edwards, Rick Lowe, Hank Willis Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, and several other African American artists, are participating in graduation ceremonies.

This spring, highly regarded artists are returning to their alma maters, delivering words of wisdom, receiving honorary degrees, and engaging in scholarly conversations. Thomas instructed graduates at the California College of the Arts, his alma mater, to take a selfie during his commencement address. At Otis College of Art and Design, Lowe explained his path from painter to creative community organizer. A short decade after receiving her degree from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), Njideka Akunyili Crosby was honored by the institution that also counts Barkley L. Hendricks among its alumni.


Njideka Akunyili Crosby in front of one of her large-scale paintings graduated from PAFA in 2006. | via PAFA twitter



Sculptor Melvin Edwards addressed the 211th commencement at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia. In 1970, Houston-born Edwards became the first African American sculptor to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. He has taught at a number of colleges, including Rutgers University from 1972 until his retirement in 2002.

Next fall, Oklahoma Contemporary in Oklahoma City is presenting a solo exhibition of Edwards’s work, his first in the state in a quarter century.

During the commencement ceremony, PAFA honored Los Angeles-based Njideka Akunyili Crosby (2006) with its 2016 Distinguished Alumni Award. Born in Nigeria, Crosby’s collage paintings explore domestic spaces and social relationships, presenting rarely depicted images of everyday, contemporary life in Africa. She has received awards from the Smithsonian and the Studio Museum in Harlem, solo exhibitions at major museums, and notable museums have also acquired her work.

Crosby is participating in the public art billboard program at the Whitney Museum of American Arts’s new building. Her installation “Before Now After (Mama, Mummy, Mamma)” is on view through June 6.


Hank willis Thomas at 2016 CCA Commencement
Hank Willis Thomas returned to his alma mater, the California College of the Arts, to address graduates. | via Hank Willis Thomas Instagram



Returning to his alma mater, Hank Willis Thomas was the distinguished speaker at the California College of the Arts (CCA) graduate commencement in San Francisco. A New York-based photo conceptual artist, Thomas earned an MFA in Photography and an MA in Visual Criticism from CCA (2004). According to CCA, he told everyone gathered for the commencement to take a selfie and, in his remarks, quoted Paul Robeson: “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth.”

Hank Willis Thomas told everyone gathered for the commencement to take a selfie and, in his remarks, quoted Paul Robeson: “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth.”

Thomas’s latest projects are politically oriented. The “Truth Booth,” a mobile interactive exhibition that “explores the nature of truth and understanding across cultures,” is on view in Brooklyn through June 3, and then will travel to all 50 states in advance of the November presidential election. Meanwhile, the recently formed super PAC he co-founded is called For Freedoms. The political action committee is raising money to fund works by artists—Rashid Johnson, Marilyn Minter, Xaviera Simmons, Bayeté Ross Smith and Carrie Mae Weems, among them—that will be published as advertisements in the lead up to the 2016 election.


SEPTEMBER | Rick Lowe, founder of Project Row Houses in Houston, wins MacArthur Fellowship.
Recognized for his transformative social practice work, Rick Lowe addressed the Otis College of Art & Design commencement. | Photo courtesy MacArthur Foundation



Otis College of Art & Design awarded an honorary doctorate to Rick Lowe who served as commencement speaker at the Los Angeles school. Otis counts David Hammons (1972), Kerry James Marshall (1978) and Allison Saar (1981) among its alumni. Charles White (1918-1979) was a longtime faculty member.

“One of the biggest responsibilities of artists is to utilize their creativity to push things. That’s the one thing that we should always hold dear. We don’t accept things as they are. We want to push them further,” Lowe told the Class of 2016.

“One of the biggest responsibilities of artists is to utilize their creativity to push things.”
— Rick Lowe, Otis College of Art & Design commencement

A MacArthur “genius” fellow (2014), Lowe is the founding director of Project Row Houses in Houston. A promising painter, early in his career Lowe transitioned to social practice and local organization, focusing more directly on creative solutions to address the social, economic and cultural needs of the community. His innovative programs have been replicated in other communities.

In his remarks, Lowe said he reconsidered his path when a group of high school students visited his studio. One teen in particular complimented his work but said, We don’t need paintings and sculptures showing what is going on in the neighborhood. We already know what’s happening. We don’t need to be told, the student said. “If you are an artist and you are creative, why can’t you create a solution?” he asked the artist. The exchange made Lowe think about his work and pushed him to respond, and become more connected and “proximate,” to the community, he said.

Last year, Lowe spoke at the commencement for the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore.

WATCH VIDEO Rick Lowe addresses Otis College of Art & Design 2016 Commencement (55:10-01:10:50).


Carrie Mae Weems 2016 SVA Commencement
Carrie Mae Weems asked School of Visual Arts graduates, “How do you measure a life?” | Screen shot from SVA Commencement video



At Radio City Music Hall, photographer Carrie Mae Weems addressed graduates of the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York. “How do you measure a life? By what means and by what measure? How you measure your lives is the most important thing, not just for you students but for all of us. I am asking myself this question constantly. How do you measure a life? How do you measure success? Failure? What is it?” she asked.

Weems, who teaches in SVA’s MFA Art Practice program, was at once professor, poet and performance artist—her delivery wise, sincere and thought-provoking. Toward the end of her remarks, she confided: “Working as an artist is one of the most difficult things that I do. At the same time it is the only thing that I can possibly do.”

“Working as an artist is one of the most difficult things that I do. At the same time it is the only thing that I can possibly do.”
— Carrie Mae Weems, School of Visual Arts Commencement

A MacArthur “genius” fellow (2013), Weems lives and works in Syracuse, N.Y. Her photography-based practice investigates family relationships and examines gender roles and race and class issues. Her solo exhibition “Carrie Mae Weems: Considered” is on view at the SCAD Museum of Art through June 12; She is directing “Grace Notes: Reflections for Now,” a special performance at Spoleta Festival USA in Charleston, S.C. (June 4-5); and her book “Carrie Mae Weems: Kitchen Table Series,” which explores one of her early and most acclaimed bodies of work, was published last month.

WATCH VIDEO Carrie Mae Weems addresses SVA 2016 Commencement at Radio City Music Hall (01:15:05-01:46:30).


Architect Philip Freelon accepts an honorary doctorate at the Massachusetts College of Art & Design commencement. | Photo via Mass ART Facebook



The lead architect for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), Philip Freelon is the founder of The Freelon Group, Architects, based in Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, N.C. The team of Freelon Adjaye Bond / SmithGroup authored the design of the historic Washington, D.C., museum scheduled to open Sept. 24.

In Boston, Freelon was one of three recipients of honorary doctor of fine arts degrees at the Massachusetts College of Art & Design commencement, along with New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, who gave remarks at the ceremony.

In addition to NMAAHC, Freelon’s projects include many other museums, libraries and cultural institutions,the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, and Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore, and Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts and Culture in Charlotte, N.C.



A Chicago-based visual and performance artist, Nick Cave‘s works span sculpture, installations, video and his celebrated Soundsuits. Yesterday, Cave spoke at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. According to the university, he told the graduates of the College of Art & Design, “Take the time out to find what really matters to you. You must be a creative change agent. …Art is like diplomacy; use it to make a difference.”

Cave also spake a few months ago at the university, participating in its Strauch-Mosse Visiting Artist Lecture Series.

“Nick Cave: Until,” a new immersive installation by Cave opens Oct. 16 at nearby ICA Boston.

“Take the time out to find what really matters to you. You must be a creative change agent. …Art is like diplomacy; use it to make a difference.” — Nick Cave, Lesley University commencement

©Katherine McMahon; from ArtNews: An Old-School Painter Adapts to a New World Order: Jack Whitten's 50-Year Evolution. By Alex Greenberger. posted 19 Jan 2016
Jack Whitten, shown in his studio, gave an artist talk at Brandeis’s Rose Art Museum on May 21. | Photo by Katherine McMahon. © Jack Whitten Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth



Abstract artist Jack Whitten is among the five distinguished figures receiving honorary degrees today at the Brandeis University 65th graduation ceremony (WATCH Live stream). Julieanna Richardson, founder of The HistoryMakers, the largest video oral-history archive of the African-American experience, and an alum of the Waltham, Mass., university, is giving the commencement address.

Known for more than five decades for his conceptual approach to abstraction, Whitten joined Hauser & Wirth Gallery in New York last month. Yesterday, Whitten was in conversation at the university’s Rose Art Museum with director Christopher Bedford and curator-at-large Katy Siegel.


El Anatsui received an Honorary Doctor of Arts from Harvard University.


Known for his mixed-media sculptural works, El Anatsui has received international acclaim, with exhibitions around the world and his work represented in the collections of major museums. A combination of texture and color, he uses found objects, such as bottle caps, seals and neck labels to create wall hangings that replicate textiles. Born in Ghana and based in Nigeria, Anatsui was among nine who attended Harvard University’s 365th commencement where they were conferred with honorary degrees. Major figures who have excelled in their fields, Anatsui was joined by Stanford University English professor Arnold Rampersad, the author of critically recognized biographies of Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison, and film director Stephen Spielberg, who gave remarks at the May 26 ceremony, among others. CT


READ MORE Commencement 2015: African American Artists Bestow Wisdom on Graduates


Update (5/31/16): Mention of El Anatsui’s honor at Harvard was added.


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