Ancestral Additions: The Legacy Grows

By Von Blum, Paul | Journal of Pan African Studies, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Ancestral Additions: The Legacy Grows


Von Blum, Paul, Journal of Pan African Studies


Even at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, African American art continues to struggle for mainstream legitimacy and critical recognition. Many black artists still face major barriers in obtaining venues for exhibition and substantial notice in mainstream publications and institutions about their creative efforts. African American art history, in some academic quarters, is still regarded as a quaint subfield of folklore and popular culture. Collectors of African American art are still primarily people within that community, making sales more problematic because of persistent disparities of income and wealth between African Americans and the majority population in the United States.

The overall situation, however, has improved in the post civil rights era. A growing scholarly and popular literature about the historical and contemporary tradition of African American visual art has provided critical validation for the thousands of artists whose works have made profound contributions to American art history for the past two centuries. Exhibitions of African American art are more commonplace, even in mainstream museums and galleries throughout the country. Younger black artists are finding somewhat more encouragement in art schools and other settings where their talents can be nurtured and rewarded.

This is the backdrop for the sad news of the departure in the past five years of some of the most iconic figures of contemporary African American art. These talented men and women were giants in both African American art and in American art generally. Their deaths were acknowledged briefly in the media, but their powerful significance and durable influence can scarcely be understood through modest obituary stories in the newspapers and in the electronic media.

Since 2005, these prominent African American artists have passed on, leaving a creative void that will be impossible to fill for generations: Gordon Parks (1912-2006); Mose Tolliver (c.1920-2006); Benny Andrews (1930-2006); Allen Crite (1910-2007); John Scott (1940-2007); Tina Allen (1949-2008); Roy DeCararva (1919-2009); Robert Colescott (1925-2009); Ernie Barnes (1938-2009); and most recently, Varnette Honeywood (1950-2010); Margaret Burroughs (1917-2010); and Arthur Coppedge (1938-2010). I have had the honor of teaching about the lives and works of all these women and men in my African American art courses at UCLA and in lectures and presentations in venues throughout the country and elsewhere. Even more profoundly and personally, I have come to know several of these artistic giants.

Historical legacy and simple justice require some additional words about these remarkable artists. This is necessary if only to solidify and perpetuate their memory and to augment the opportunity for younger artists and viewers to examine their cumulative works. To note that all these gifted artists deserve critical enshrinement is a profound understatement.

Gordon Parks was one of the greatest (and rarest) renaissance persons in American history. Documentary photographer, filmmaker, novelist, poet, memoirist, activist, and musician, Parks's multifaceted accomplishments rival those of Paul Robeson for sheer breadth and brilliance. He is probably best remembered as one of the finest documentary photographers of the African American experience in the 20th century--and one of the finest documentary photographers in the entire history of the medium generally. His gripping images of Jim Crow era racism and urban poverty complement his dignified portraits of African American luminaries like Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, and many others.

Mose Tolliver was one of the most acclaimed self-taught folk artists in the African American tradition. His colorful portraits (usually with house paint on plywood) of people, nature, and animals reflected his life experiences growing up as the child of poor black Southern sharecropper, making his living doing odd jobs and as an unskilled laborer, and surviving with severe physical disabilities. …

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