Jessica Lynne on art and historically Black colleges and universities

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Hampton University Museum, Virginia, 2016. Center: Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Banjo Lesson, 1893. Photo: Alexander Kravits.

IN A SMALL GALLERY on the second floor of Virginia’s Hampton University Museum hangs Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson. A young boy sits in the lap of his grandfather, learning to play the titular instrument, the pair surrounded by the evidence of life lived: clothes hung in the background, a loaf of bread and a white pitcher on a table, cooking pots at their feet. Color and shadow blend exquisitely to create a subtle glow that is cast onto the pair together at the fireside.

Tanner is widely regarded as the most important Black American artist of the nineteenth century, and this 1893 oil painting, which helped win him international acclaim when it was entered in the prestigious Paris Salon in 1894, remains his most famous. Composed in the French capital from studies the artist made after having spent time in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, Tanner’s painting depicts an intimacy, a tenderness, and a grace that seek to correct the pernicious stereotyping epitomized by minstrelsy. One of the few depictions of contemporary life in Tanner’s oeuvre—he primarily focused on biblical subjects—The Banjo Lesson is a monumental feat of Black figurative painting.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Banjo Lesson, 1893, oil on canvas, 49 × 35 1⁄2

Of course, I didn’t know any of this the first time I saw The Banjo Lesson, nor did I truly understand the magnitude of Tanner’s legacy as an artist. What I did know was that this was a painting by a Black person in a museum full of works by other Black artists on the campus of a historically Black college, and that for me, as a young Black person, this was a special combination of circumstances.

During the painting’s sojourn in Paris, it was acquired by a philanthropist and donated to the Hampton University Museum on the campus of Hampton University, a historically Black college or university (HBCU) in Hampton, Virginia, and the first collecting institution devoted to Black fine art. Since then, the museum’s holdings have swelled to include the works of artists such as Whitfield Lovell, Archibald Motley Jr., Jacob Lawrence, John Biggers, and Samella S. Lewis, the last two of whom also studied at the school. In the early part of the past century, it was the only art institution in the American South that permitted Black patrons. This museum, the first I ever set foot in (I visited it during an afternoon outing with a family friend who is an alumnus), is where I began to understand a history of Black visual culture and art. That is to say, while the complexities of art history still eluded my young mind, I was keenly aware that this was my hometown museum and that in this place I could see an expanse of Black American art across many generations.

In an era framed by the political fervor of the Movement for Black Lives, “mainstream” (read: white) museums, galleries, cinemas, and other cultural organizations are frantic to reckon with the oppressions that have structured their existences, hiring more Black leadership and curatorial staff, increasing acquisitions of work by Black artists and other artists of color, and investing in infrastructure that supports the education of Black students and scholars. But if you were to ask your average art-world denizen to discuss the position of HBCUs in relation to these ongoing structural negotiations, you would most likely be met with blank stares.

HBCUs, which have served as a critical nexus for Black cultural production for more than 150 years, should be seen as integral to any assessment of contemporary visual art tout court.

“We used to have the phrase ‘hidden treasure’ printed on our brochures,” Vanessa Thaxton-Ward, director of the Hampton University Museum, told me earlier this year, over the phone. “We decided, when we printed our new ones, to take off that ‘hidden’ because we’ve been here since 1868 as the oldest African American museum in the United States and one of the oldest museums in the state of Virginia.”

The phrase “hidden treasure,” in addition to capturing the difficulties universities face in engaging the broader museum-going public, seems to speak to the relative lack of understanding about the role of HBCUs within American visual culture. The post–civil rights era in the US saw the emergence of many new cultural organizations and museums as the political and aesthetic vanguard of the time—the Black Power and Black Art movements—made clear that it was necessary for Black cultural production to be stewarded in Black communities by Black people. While the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, arguably remains the most familiar and frequently cited example of this broader endeavor, it’s vital to recognize HBCUs and their museums, galleries, and art and art-history programs when tracing the lineage of Black cultural institutionality. These colleges and universities, which have served as a critical nexus for Black cultural production for more than 150 years, should be seen as integral to any assessment of contemporary visual art tout court.

View of “To Conserve a Legacy: American Art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” 1999, Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, MA.

This view was on full display in the 1999 exhibition “To Conserve a Legacy: American Art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” a sweeping survey of six HBCU collections. Jointly organized by the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts, the show featured work and documentation from Clark Atlanta University; Fisk University, Nashville; Hampton University; Howard University, Washington, DC; North Carolina Central University, Durham; and Tuskegee University, Alabama. Charles White’s first public mural, Five Great American Negroes, 1939–40, a massive tableau portraying leaders such as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth installed in the Studio Museum’s lobby, announced the show’s expansive scale. The gallery walls themselves teemed with all manner of paintings, from a landscape by the Hudson School artist Robert S. Duncanson to the slicing abstraction of William T. Williams, with dozens of portraits between; photographs of Black sharecroppers, bustling campuses, and celebrities; Indigenous beadwork; and religious iconography that included Clementine Hunter’s Crucifixion, 1950, which connects Christ’s suffering on the cross to Jim Crow–era lynching. Here, Alfred Stieglitz’s iconic New York cityscapes hung alongside an easel study for Aaron Douglas’s mural Building More Stately Mansions, 1944, a scene in muted purples linking the Black laborers shaping the Manhattan skyline to the architects of ancient pyramids and temples.

 Aaron Douglas, Symbolic Negro History (detail), ca. 1930. Installation view, Cravath Hall, Fisk University, Nashville, TN, 2017. Photo: Drew Sawyer.

“It would be misleading to suggest that the contributions of these institutions are all in the past,” Kinshasha Holman Conwill, then director of the Studio Museum, wrote in her introduction to the exhibition’s catalogue. “As the principal caretakers of late nineteenth-century to late twentieth-century African American art, traditionally black colleges and universities hold incomparable objects and an unsurpassed record of educating artists and scholars of American art.”

The majority of HBCUs (the term refers to schools founded before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to provide higher education to Black Americans) were established shortly before and after the Civil War, primarily but not exclusively in the South, by Black activists and community leaders, white missionary groups, philanthropists, abolitionists, and pacifists. If HBCUs became centers of Black collegiate experience and pillars of scholarship at a time when segregation was enforced by law, they also became a place where Black artists and art professionals thrived. “In addition to their collecting activities, these institutions also provided primary training for African American artists, art historians, professors, and curators,” Holman Conwill writes. Tanner himself, for example, taught drawing at Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University) in the latter half of the 1880s.

Works from the Alain LeRoy Locke African art collection, Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 2017. Photo: Faye Yan Zhang.

Increasingly sites of diasporic solidarity and exchange, HBCUs were crucial to the interwar flourishing of what was then known as the New Negro Movement. “As an art historical term, ‘Harlem Renaissance’ works best when removed from its regional connotations and is placed within the more inclusive concept of a metaphoric landscape where this born-again black culture is realized in a range of art works, visual artists, and artistic meccas,” writes art historian and “To Conserve a Legacy” cocurator Richard J. Powell in Black Art: A Cultural History (2003). As the so-called dean of this movement, philosopher and Howard professor Alain LeRoy Locke established a circuit between New York and the capital, where students at Howard, indeed known as The Mecca, could in 1928 encounter objects from Locke’s Travelling Collection of Harlem Museum of African Art of New York City; the permanent museum was a vision ultimately left unrealized. It was Locke, Powell notes, who “dislocated” the Renaissance’s constitutive ideology of the New Negro “from its original sociopolitical connotations to an aesthetic of progress and race redefinitions.”

Howard’s art department, founded in 1921 by James Vernon Herring, who subsequently became the university’s first gallery director, would graduate Alma Thomas, Loïs Mailou Jones, and Mildred Thompson. Artists such as James Lesesne Wells and art historian James A. Porter would join the school’s ranks as professors, and in 1970, AfriCOBRA cofounder Jeff Donaldson would become chair of the college’s art department, bringing to its curriculum his political perspective and diasporic lens. Moreover, for the past thirty-one years, the university has convened the annual James A. Porter Colloquium to foster the study of, ongoing dialogue about, and an appreciation for visual culture of the Black diaspora.

Palmer C. Hayden, Beale Street Blues, 1943, oil on canvas, 30 × 40

“The HBCUs have not been given the credit that they are due,” says the late, groundbreaking art historian David Driskell in Sam Pollard’s recent documentary Black Art: In the Absence of Light. “When nobody else was championing these artists, HBCUs were there: claiming them, showcasing them, putting them up on the wall, teaching about them.” In his role as chair of the Fisk University art department during the 1960s and ’70s (he succeeded department founder Aaron Douglas), Driskell catalogued the work of Black artists practicing from slavery to the present day. His scholarship constituted the curatorial framework for his monumental 1976 exhibition “Two Centuries of African American Art” at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, itself the anchor for Pollard’s investigation.

Perhaps no other artist presently encapsulates the spirit of Driskell’s words more than Samella S. Lewis, the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in art history. Widely regarded as a foremother of Black fine art and art history, she created work that is complemented by her searing scholarship as a historian and academician. At ninety-seven, Lewis no longer gives many interviews, and so her son Claude facilitated our conversation on my behalf via email.

Samella S. Lewis, 1947.

“They were the basis of my training and my understanding of African American art,” Lewis said of HBCUs. Born in New Orleans, Lewis studied with Elizabeth Catlett while enrolled at Dillard University in her hometown in the ’40s before completing her undergraduate studies at Hampton. During the ’60s, alongside peers such as Maren Hassinger, John Outterbridge, and Betye Saar, Lewis became a key figure in an emergent scene of Black artists in Los Angeles but struggled to gain access to white-owned exhibition spaces and to obtain gallery representation and financial support. Frustrated by this ongoing exclusion yet motivated by a tradition of artmaking “outside canonical narratives,” as the historian Kellie Jones puts it, Lewis only intensified her advocacy as a curator, administrator, and publisher.

In 1975, a few years after resigning from her post as education coordinator at LACMA, Lewis opened the Museum of African American Art (MAAA), which began by presenting exhibitions primarily off-site, including, as Jones outlines, “Arts of Africa and the Diaspora” at Santa Monica College and “Art of the Poster” at Angelus Plaza senior residence. MAAA was originally located in the same building as Lewis’s independent commercial space, the Gallery, but as the museum’s collecting priorities sharpened, Lewis recognized the need to expand. With support from then–LA councilwoman Pat Russell, Lewis and her collaborator Mary Jane Hewitt, a scholar, were able to secure the third floor of the May Department Stores Company, now Macy’s, located in South Los Angeles, the museum’s home to this day. “I hope the intentions of my legacy will be continued and maintained,” Lewis says. “We have to create and establish our own institutions. We can’t continue to allow others to define who we are as well as our value.” 

Samella S. Lewis, Water Boy, 1944, oil on canvas, 47 1⁄8 × 14 3⁄4

Raising awareness of the institutions that already exist is another concern. “I think it is sometimes surprising that our people right in our own backyard don’t know what they have in us,” Thaxton-Ward said when I asked her about the significance of having the works of artists like Lewis, Catlett, Joshua Johnson, Augusta Savage, Purvis Young, and Sonya Clark in Hampton’s African American fine-art collection. “But I think oftentimes people are put off because they think it’s a museum for the university and that they cannot come on campus.”

The challenge of public outreach is felt most acutely by HBCUs, which face chronic federal underinvestment and operate with endowments and budgets significantly smaller than those of primarily white institutions (PWIs). In addition, many schools contend with art’s perceived status as a “fringe activity” by HBCU administrators and trustees, as Powell acknowledges in his essay for “To Conserve a Legacy.” Even as HBCUs attempt to combat misperceptions of themselves as being static or excessively past-oriented, many of their collections remain undigitized, though this may soon change. This spring, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture announced a partnership with five colleges (Clark Atlanta University, Florida A&M University, Jackson State University, Texas Southern University, and Tuskegee University) that will prioritize the digitization of HBCU collections and archives, create a career pipeline, and organize a traveling survey of art from the participating schools.

Poster for “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976. Charles White, I Have a Dream, 1976.

The Atlanta University Center Art History + Curatorial Studies Collective, an interdisciplinary incubator housed within the department of art and visual culture at Atlanta’s Spelman College and underwritten by the Alice L. Walton Foundation, represents another new initiative premised on interuniversity collaboration. Students enrolled at any of the three universities (Spelman, Clark Atlanta, and Morehouse College) that compose the Atlanta University Center corridor may pursue an art-history major or minor as well as a curatorial-studies minor.

“The aim of the AUC Art Collective is to create the next generation of African American global art-and-culture industry leaders,” Cheryl Finley, the center’s director and distinguished visiting professor, tells me. In addition to organizing cross-institutional symposia and programs—such as January’s introductory salon on blockchain technology, collections management, and cultural heritage—the collective maintains close ties to area institutions such as Hammonds House Museum, Atlanta Contemporary, and the High Museum of Art while forging relationships with local high school students through a summer program.

What would it look like for those in power to throw their weight behind HBCU museums—to give them resources commensurate with their outsize impact?

Hampton has also recently announced a new curation and conservation fellowship with its neighbor, the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia. Led by Thaxton-Ward and Kimberli Gant, McKinnon Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the museum, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation–funded program will invite two graduate-student fellows to focus on works that belong to the storied Harmon Foundation Collection. Together, the Hampton-based curatorial fellow and the Chrysler-based conservation fellow will identify collection works in need of greater scholastic attention and conservation. The aim, ultimately, is to offer another pathway for Black students into the field. 

These programs are training the next wave of art workers and should be recognized and supported. What would it look like for those in power to throw their weight behind HBCU museums—to give them resources commensurate with their outsize impact? Such investment would rightfully extend the work of Lewis, Driskell, Powell, and Edmund Barry Gaither alongside that of a new generation of scholars, enabling these collections to receive the research and viewership they deserve.

Hale A. Woodruff, Interchange, 1950–51, oil on canvas, 12 × 12'. From “The Art of the Negro Series,” 1950–51.

My reflections here have primarily focused on Hampton’s African American art collection, but the museum’s primary holdings also include a sizable amount of African art from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, South Africa, and Liberia. Additionally, the museum retains possession of Native art from the Dakota, Lakota, Oneida, and Cherokee Nations, some of it acquired during a time when the university, then white-controlled, operated a federal Indian boarding school. HBCU museums and galleries represent, to borrow again from Powell, a special inheritance, and with it comes a responsibility to grapple with the ethics of acquisition, repatriation, and curatorial practices. Beyond the scope of this essay, I hold onto these questions as a critic with her own evolving relationship to a place of deep import.

As universities and museums throughout the world begin to reopen their doors, Hampton University’s galleries, as of this writing, remain dark. For her part, Thaxton-Ward is looking forward to once again staging the museum’s juried exhibition and to curating more exhibitions of works by alumni like the Atlanta-based Alfred Conteh.

As for me, I’m waiting patiently for a safe and quiet afternoon to lose myself for a few moments in front of Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson, to return to an experience that will always feel new, and always welcome.

Jessica Lynne is a writer, critic, and coeditor of ARTS.BLACK, a journal of art criticism from Black perspectives.

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