Several artists last week touted the influence Howard University and their peers have had on shaping their long, storied careers. At the same time, some wondered why society doesn’t embrace them as just artists – as opposed to “Black artists.”
The comments came on March 17 at a two-day symposium at the National Gallery of Art called, “The African American Art World in 20th Century Washington, D.C.” Eight artists with roots in the District served on a panel, reflecting on the people and institutions that impacted their careers.
Howard University played a pivotal role in the career of artist David C. Driskell, 85. He arrived at the university in 1949 from North Carolina and said it was professor James A. Porter who encouraged him to change his major from history to art after looking at one of his paintings.
James V. Herring, founder of the university’s department of art, helped Driskell understand that art is communal, spiritual and requires a lifetime commitment.
Herring opened the Barnett-Aden Gallery in the District, one of the first Black art galleries in the U.S. It allowed Driskell to meet Langston Hughes, Romare Bearden and other Black luminaries. Lois Jones, another professor, took students to Paris to study art in the summer.
“They had a sense of community which went beyond Washington and they tried to introduce you to that, not just in the classroom,” said Driskell, who opened a center of Black art in his name at the University of Maryland, College Park. “And Howard was really at the center of art production in those days. Everybody outside of the Washington community knew about art at Howard University.”
The appreciation and knowledge of art was instilled in Howard students early on, said Sylvia Snowden, a painter who graduated from the university in 1965.
Under the tutelage of Howard professors, including Porter, Driskell, famed photographer James Wells and others, Snowden learned art was something she should do seriously and that she should take pride in her work because making art isn’t a game.
Driskell and artist Martin Puryear, 75, said they longed for the day they’ll be seen as just artists and not be categorized as African-American artists. Puryear took issue with the “African American Art World,” which was part of the symposium’s title.
“In my conception of art, you want to be an artist in the world and not just in the African-American art world,” he said.
Meanwhile, author and artist Lilian Thomas Burwell, 89, argued that the very nature of marginalization in the broader society has given Black artists the freedom to express themselves with abandon.
Black artists in the District are the “visual manifestation of finding a way out of no way out way,” she said. “Because of the fact that doors were closed in other directions, the result was it brought us together even more closely.”