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Narratives of African American Art and Identity: The David C. Driskell Collection

Thursday, October 22, 1998–Saturday, December 19, 1998

Curated by: Juanita Holland, Ph.D.
Organized by: The University of Maryland Art Gallery, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland

The Art Gallery at the University of Maryland was proud to host this exhibition of works from the collection of the noted artist, scholar, and collector David C. Driskell. The 100 works by 61 artists vividly documented changes in African American identity and belief from the 1870s until the present day. Narratives was on view October 22 through December 19, 1998 at The Art Gallery at the University of Maryland. After closing at The Art Gallery, Narratives traveled through 2002 to several venues throughout the United States.

We hosted a number of special events, including a tribute dinner in honor of Driskell and a symposium, Re-envisioning the Diaspora. In the West Gallery and running concurrently with this exhibition was a show featuring Driskell's own art, entitled Echoes: The Art of David C. Driskell.

Narratives of African American Art and Identity: The David C. Driskell Collection was made possible by a major contribution from the Rockefeller Foundation and additional support from the Maryland State Arts Council, the Prince George's Arts Council, the Washington Post Company, and WPFW 89.3 FM Washington, DC.

The exhibition was divided into five themes: Strategic Subversions, Emergence, The Black Academy, Radical Politics, and Diasporic Identities. The following tabs provide information about the theme, history, and artists in each section. 

Comprehensive Guide to Artwork in this Exhibition:



Strategic Subversions

Cultural Emancipation, Assimilation, and African American Identity

A primary agenda for African American artists of the nineteenth century was to establish their right to participate in Western society. This they accomplished by mastering European American aesthetic traditions. Their success was dependent not only on satisfying the tastes of white patrons who were willing to support their forays into "high culture" but also on reaching the small pool of Black patrons who could afford to purchase paintings and sculpture. Moreover, their artistic identity presented a direct challenge to the cultural superiority so deeply embedded in Western society. Against the backdrop of legislative repression and the threat of physical violence, one road to emancipation came through cultural achievement; assimilation served as a strategic weapon against racism.

Honoring the legacy of nineteenth century Black artists, this section of the exhibition will feature works by such artists as Robert S. Duncanson, Edward Mitchell Bannister, and Charles Ethan Porter, as well as early twentieth century artists Meta Warrick Fuller, James V. Herring, Henry O. Tanner, and James VanDerZee. The work of these artists provides the first cornerstone for the discussion of racial and artistic identity that is the foundation of the exhibition.


The New Negro Movement and Definition of Race


The first three decades of the twentieth century witnessed a growing awareness of the importance of African heritage in understanding and defining African American identity as the Great Migration established significant Black communities in northern cities. Leading intellectuals like W.E.B. DuBois and Alain Locke urged Black artists to look towards African arts for inspiration and to choose African and African American subject matter. Simultaneously, and against the backdrop of continuing violence against American Blacks, African Americans in the fine and performing arts gathered in cities like Chicago and New York, forming the New Negro Movement later called the Harlem Renaissance. While Black institutions and communities continued to support Black artistic achievement and Black artists mentored and taught a younger generation, white Americans began to notice what seemed to them a surge of creative expression by Black musicians, writers, and artists. Enthusiastic attention from white audiences grew into a kind of obsessive fascination. Whites flocked to Harlem to patronize the arts and sample an 'exotic' blackness. This combination of white patronage and Black achievement a collision of two very different agendas about the nature of Black identity produced a discourse about race, class, patronage, and reception that is key to our understanding of subsequent developments in African American art in the twentieth century.

The works selected from Driskell's collection to exemplify this discourse include paintings, sculptures, and photographs by Richmond Barthé, Roy DeCarava, Aaron Douglas, David Driskell, William H. Johnson, Loïs Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, P.H. Polk, Augusta Savage, James VanDerZee, Laura Wheeler Waring, James L. Wells, and Hale Woodruff.

The Black Academy

Teachers, Mentors, and Institutional Patronage

Perhaps the least explored area of African American art history is the role of Black institutions and individuals in nurturing the development of Black artists. Scholars have tended to appraise the works and careers of Black artists only to the extent they have been recognized by influential white individuals and institutions in Europe and America. But there existed what can be called the 'Black academy,' a continuous flow of encouragement, patronage, instruction, and mentoring that Black artists received from other African American individuals and institutions. Artists who gained prominence during the Harlem Renaissance became devoted teachers to the next generation of artists. Historically Black colleges and institutions developed some of the most impressive collections of African American art. And throughout Black communities, libraries, schools, YMCAs and YWCAs, societies, fraternities, and civic organizations provided patronage and forums for exhibitions and competitions during a time when such opportunities were rare or nonexistent for Black artists in white mainstream institutions. Biographies of the artists, histories of significant mentor/teacher relationships, salons, workshops, and exhibitions by Black institutions, all illustrate the importance of this support system in nurturing African American art.

This section includes works by those who provided the structure of the 'Black academy,' as well as those who benefited from it: artists such as Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Claude Clark, Allen Crite, Wilmer Jennings, James Porter, Augusta Savage, Charles Sebree, Bill Taylor, James Lesesne Wells, Charles White, and Hale Woodruff.

Radical Politics

Protest and Art

While African American artists engaged issues of identity and racism in their art throughout the twentieth century, the 1950s and '60s witnessed a heightened politicization. The increasingly radical and aggressive push for civil rights in the Black communities was mirrored in the art of these decades. The artists explored themes of the Black urban experience, Black labor, confrontation and resistance, and racial violence. Images directly related to the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, depictions of important Black leaders such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and documentation of racism's effect on Black America were integral concerns for African American artists of this period who vigorously participated in the discourse on identity and racism.

Works such as Bearden's Street Scene, Catlett's The Black Woman Speaks, Lawrence's We Declare Ourselves Independent, White's I Have a Dream, as well as works by John Biggers, Eldzier Cortor, Earl Hooks, James Phillips are included in this section.

Diasporic Identities

Global Arts

A central issue in the dialogue among Black artists, their work, and the public has been the conflict inherent in appropriating European-American aesthetic and art-historical traditions, especially when juxtaposed with the diversity of Black experience that was often not well-served by those traditions. Some Black artists rejected the growing popularity of abstraction in 1950s America, feeling that narrative and figurative conventions suited their message-oriented agenda much more than did subject neutral expression. Others pursued formalist styles not immediately identifiable with ethnic heritage. Still others, eager to explore artistic identities that would fuse Western and non-Western traditions, mined the rich cultural traditions of the African continent and diaspora communities in the Americas. As the context for making, exhibiting, and selling art became more global, the issues of identity for artists of color began to cross boundaries of nationhood, gender, and color. The transnational explorations of diaspora identity mark both the beginning of fresh perspectives and the continuation of a dialogue that has been going on since Africans were first brought to the Americas.

Artists in the Driskell collection who engage with these issues of international and diasporal identity include several of those previously mentioned in sections I-IV as well as Terry Adkins, Robert Colescott, Beaufort Delaney, Minnie Evans, Michael Harris, Margo Humphrey, Sam Gilliam, Norman Lewis, Richard Mayhew, Sam Middleton, Keith Morrison, Mary O'Neal, Stephanie Pogue, Ray Saunders, Frank Stewart, Alma Thomas, Yvonne Edwards Tucker, and William T. Williams. This last section of the exhibition will present a rich sampling of works from the last three decades which demonstrate the expression of multiple and varied artistic identities within Black art in the United States.

Project Participants

Ira Berlin, M. Colleen Chapman, Adrienne Childs, Tuliza Fleming, Terry Gips, Allan M. Gordon, Juanita Holland, Kim Kindelsperger, Keith Morrison, Sharon F. Patton, Carla Peterson, Richard J. Powell, Jennifer Strychasz

Catalogue Purchasing Information 

The exhibition catalogue, Narratives of African American Art and Identity: The David C. Driskell Collection, contains essays contextualizing the exhibition objects, as well as Driskell's activity as scholar and collector, within the broader arena of American art. Art history scholars Juanita Holland, Sharon Patton, Richard Powell, Allan Gordon, and Keith Morrison apply a contemporary lens to Driskell's efforts as artist, critic, mentor, and collector. Object entries for each of the 100 works in the exhibition contextualize specific works within the larger picture of the artist's life and career, connecting them with the various societal influences surrounding their creation. Each object entry is accompanied by a color reproduction. The catalogue serves as a valuable reference guide to over a century of African American art and provides a chronology of the life and career of each artist and an extensive bibliography.

Published by Pomegranate Communications
Retail price: Hardcover, with dust jacket, $50.00
Catalogue No. A551; ISBN 0-7649-0722-0

Smythe-sewn paperback, with flaps, $35.00
Catalogue No. A504; ISBN 0-7649-0689-5

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