The Academy Sharpens Its Focus on African-American Art: But Scholars Call for More Specialization, Museum Space

By Morgan, Joan | Black Issues in Higher Education, June 15, 1995 | Go to article overview

The Academy Sharpens Its Focus on African-American Art: But Scholars Call for More Specialization, Museum Space


Morgan, Joan, Black Issues in Higher Education


The Academy Sharpens its Focus on African-American Art: But Scholars Call. for More Specialization, Museum Space

The hip-roof and cylindrical and beehive type houses built by slaves at the Keswick plantation in Midlothian, VA, in the 1700s are all examples of the influences of African architecture brought to America by slaves. This little-known information is the reason we need African-American art history, say Black artists and academicians.

"When the research is done, in the final analysis, there are so many wonderful things that we don't get credit for -- not only in painting and sculpture, but also in the crafts and architecture," said Dr. David Driskell, a painter and Distinguished Professor of Art at the University of Maryland. He is also the author of "Two Centuries of Black American Art, 1750-1950."

Citing other examples of the near-invisibility of African-American influence in architecture, Driskell mentions the icehouse in Williamsburg, VA, and architecture found in the Caine River region in Natchitoches, LA. "It is important that Black people be the ones who define their art because unless we take matters in hand, do the proper research and define the field...we will continue to be left out."

Development of the Discipline

Dr. Regina Perry, a retired Virginia Commonwealth University professor of African American Art history, was probably among the first to teach such courses in the late 1960s and early 1970s in traditionally white institutions of higher education in this country. Perry doesn't remember exactly how it came about that VCU decided to add such courses, but thinks it probably came out of the demands of students during that era of civil rights and Black-consciousness raising.

"No one was teaching African-American art history when I was in graduate school, so I taught myself," Perry said. That has been the process for other early leaders such as the late Dr. James Porter, a well-known historian of African-American art who is considered the father of the discipline and a former professor at Howard University.

Porter, who published on the subject in the 1940s, first defined the field of African-American art history, says Driskell, who studied under Porter as an undergraduate. Howard's first courses in African-American art were taught by Porter during the 1950s, says Dr. Floyd Coleman, chairman of the university's College of Fine Arts. Today, both Porter and Driskell -- teacher and pupil -- now occupy central places in the history of African-American art and art historiography.

Coleman also pointed out that Alain Locke, now better known for his work as a creative writer, wrote analytical volumes on African-American art in the 1940s while at Howard.

Said Driskell of his own renown as an historian of African-American art: "I have tried to pick up the mantle from where Porter left off by telling students that there is a field out there that is neglected, and that historians of the majority culture are not going to do that much about it.

"We need to go to the sources...the libraries...and dig out this information and define it in terms that can be placed in the compendium, so that nobody can say, `Oh, they are making this up.' [We can say] that the record is there -- that is what is respected in this country."

The historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have been in the forefront of teaching about the contributions of African-American artists, Coleman said. Howard had a sketching course as early as 1871 and, in 1921, it had one of the few full programs for art majors at an HBCU -- though the program had no courses in African-American art history.

Other HBCUs with active programs included Fisk University, where artists Aaron Douglas and Driskell each chaired the art department. And, in the 1930s, African-American artist Hale Woodruff founded art departments at Atlanta University and Spelman College.

Hampton University, under the leadership of the German Jewish expatriot, Viktor Lowenfeld, started a program which extolled the importance of African art, said Coleman. …

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