The history of African-American art owes much of its depth and scope to the scholarship of David C. Driskell, a leader in the field for more than three decades.
By ALICE THORSON
The Kansas City Star
David Driskell is to the African-American visual arts like Michael Jordan was to the Bulls and Lionel Hampton is to jazz. Hes the man, says Greg Carroll, chief executive officer of the American Jazz Museum, where Driskell will give a free talk Feb 27.
This is essential, said Rose Bryant, a longtime Kansas City arts patron. His historical perspective on African-American art is a contribution to the history of art in America. We dont have anyone else so versed in what other artists are doing and documenting it for history.
Building on the seminal work of James A. Porter at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Driskell a Howard alum and widely exhibited artist himself has revolutionized Americas understanding of its artistic past with numerous books and dozens of exhibitions.
Its American art, he said in a recent interview from his office in Hyattsville, Md. Its not separate and apart from the so-called mainstream. Its often narrative, because African-American artists like to tell stories.
Driskell will expand on these ideas in his upcoming lecture, which coincides with the exhibit Convergence: Jazz, Film, Dance and the Visual Arts, organized by the Jazz Museum and the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland in College Park. Dedicated to the study of African-American visual arts and culture, the center was established in his honor in 2001.
A respected educator who taught at the school from 1977 to 1998 after a decade at Fisk University in Nashville, Driskell is also an avid collector of African-American art and has donated hundreds of works to the Driskell Center and various galleries and museums.
In 2006, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art acquired an original mural study for Aspects of Negro Life: An Idyll of the Deep South, by Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas, as a partial gift from Driskell with additional funding from other sources.
In celebration of his visit, the Nelson will display the Douglas study Feb. 26 as a temporary addition to the exhibit History and Hope: Celebrating the Civil Rights Movement, in Gallery 214. Because of conservation concerns, the fragile work on paper will be on view for one day only.
More to be done
At Fisk, Driskell succeeded Douglas as chairman of the art department from 1966 to 1976. In those years, he spent part of his time assembling the groundbreaking overview Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750-1950, which opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976 and stopped at museums across the country.
It remains, Driskell believes, his most influential project.
As scholarship goes, Theres still a great deal to be done, Driskell says. He admires the work of younger scholars, including Duke Universitys Richard J. Powell, and highly recommends Sharon Pattons African-American Art, part of the Oxford History of Art series, to those who really want to understand the historical perspective.
Driskell is also intrigued by the work of Emory Universitys Michael Harris, who is following up his 2006 Colored Pictures: Race and Visual Representation with a new book, Sanctuary: Pattern and Performance in African-American Art. A preview of Harris ideas about sanctuary can be found in the fall 2011 Journal of Contemporary African Art, in which he cites the feet of the lynching victim at the top of the Douglas mural as a possible influence on Kara Walkers dismembered figures.
Artists Driskell is watching include video and performance artist Jefferson Pinder at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; Iona Rozeal Brown, who is having two one-person shows in New York this season, and Washington, D.C.-based Ellington Robinson.
On his return to the East Coast, he will continue to work with Christine Kreamer, deputy director and chief curator of the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. The two are organizing an exhibit of the collection of African-American art owned by Camille and Bill Cosby.
Its a show I never thought was going to happen, he said. Ive been the curator of the Bill Cosby collection since 1977. Its the nations largest and most comprehensive collection of African-American art in private hands.
The Cosbys normally dont lend but decided they will lend 40 or 60 works to the National Museum of African Art if we can pull some parallel things from the African experience. Were calling the show Conversations.
The Cosby collection has hundreds of works, Driskell said. The show will feature pieces representative of the highest quality of their collection, from the early days of Joshua Johnston, the first major African-American painter who worked in the late 18th to early 19th century, up to Martin Puryear.
Driskells own work, including Five Blue Notes, is on view in the Jazz Museums Convergence exhibit.
The encaustic and egg tempera abstraction is part of a series, he said, that came out of my love and respect for jazz and the relationship I had with Wynton Marsalis and his photographer, Frank Stewart.
It was not an attempt to depict jazz, he added, but to express my own feeling for this great American form how I would see (the music) instead of just hearing it.
Three works by Driskell are among the exhibits more than 60 pieces drawn from the holdings of the Jazz Museum, the Driskell Center and private collections.
The exhibit was handsomely installed by the Jazz Museums visiting curator Sonie Joi Thompson-Ruffin and co-curated by Robert Steele and Dorit Yaron of the Driskell Center. It includes works by such luminaries as Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, Emma Amos and Benny Andrews.
Vitrines containing sculptures and artifacts, including a pair of tap shoes belonging to Lonnie McFadden and an African wooden drum, counterpoint the two-dimensional works on the walls.
Faith Ringgolds serigraph Mama Can Sing (2004) and silkscreen Papa Can Blow (2005) engage in lively back and forth with a display of patterned African artifacts. Other highlights include photographer Bob Barrys striking images capturing the intensity of jazz performers, and Strange Fruit, an opulent quilt by Ruffin from the collection of Doris and Greg Carroll.
The show includes film footage from the Jazz Museums John H. Baker Jazz Film collection and a moving poem by Glenn North, whose words gather the assembled images of performers and their instruments into an emotional unity.
Like the lone jazz musician fretting his fractured sax, we all at some times feel the weight of the world on our back North writes. We all better get our Charlie Parker on, find a song thats all our own and sing it till the musics gone.
Carroll, who hatched the idea for the show with Steele, former executive director of the Driskell Center, sees the exhibits embrace of visual arts, dance, music and performance as part of a historical continuum.
When you peel all the layers away, this is exactly what our fathers did in Africa, he said. Its like were taking this back to red earth.
David C. Driskell will speak at 6 p.m. Feb. 27 at the American Jazz Museum, 1616 E. 18th St. Admission to the lecture is free; RSVP requested by Feb. 24 at AmericanJazzMuseum.org/rsvp or call 816-474-8463, Ext. 205. The Convergence exhibition continues in the museums Changing Gallery through April 27, and the show will be open the night of Driskells lecture. Regular hours are 9 a.m-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m. Sunday; admission to the Changing Gallery is free.