The fourth edition of H. W. Janson’s “History of Art,” long the standard introductory text in art history courses, is over 850 pages long, with more than 1,000 illustrations, weighing in at over seven and a half pounds. It aims for the encyclopedic, “from cave paintings of the Old Stone Age to the latest video art.” During the fall of 1992, when the artist Derek Fordjour was 18 years old, he lugged the book to class at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn with earnest intentions of pursuing an artistic career. The child of Ghanaian immigrants who had made a home in Memphis, Fordjour had absorbed his parents’ work ethic and respect for education. But something was missing for him in that hefty tome: nearly the entire history of Black art in America.
“I was angry,” Fordjour says. “I was an angry student because I really didn’t see any models at that time, in the ’90s at a major art school, that evidenced Black artists.” He left Pratt a couple years later and eventually found his way to Morehouse College, the renowned historically Black institution located in Atlanta. While at Morehouse, he took a cross-listed course at neighboring Spelman College from Professor Akua McDaniel titled “The History of African American Art,” which introduced him to a vibrant but disparaged artistic tradition stretching back to the colonial artisans whose names are lost to time and forward to emerging artists, of which Fordjour now counted himself as one. “Morehouse set me straight,” he says. “It said, ‘Hey, you are part of a rich lineage of Africans in America who have been deeply invested in art making.’”
Without America’s historically Black colleges and universities (H.B.C.U.s), that lineage of Black art making would be lost, or if not lost, then mostly relegated to myth and to memory. These institutions served — and still serve today — as keepers of tangible materials of culture and as training grounds for generations of artists and art historians, curators and conservationists.
The history of H.B.C.U.s stretches back to the 1830s, when white Northern abolitionists joined with free Black Americans to found the first three schools: Cheyney (1837), Lincoln (1854) and Wilberforce (1856). H.B.C.U.s increased in number during the Civil War and its aftermath, with the founding of Howard (1867), Morehouse (1867) and Spelman (1881). The Morrill Land-Grant Acts, first introduced in 1862 and expanded upon in 1890, compelled former Confederate states to provide educational opportunities for their Black citizens. Out of these acts, a number of new H.B.C.U.s were born, including some of the best known to this day: Tuskegee, Florida A&M, Prairie View A&M, and North Carolina A&T, the last of which now boasts the largest student body of any H.B.C.U. By the 1930s there were 121 H.B.C.U.s; there are currently 101. Though H.B.C.U.s account for only about 3 percent of colleges and universities in the United States, they have an outsize impact, producing nearly 20 percent of Black college graduates. Such success has come in spite of tremendous disadvantages: dramatically lower funding when compared to predominantly white institutions, and less support from state and federal government and from private industry.
But things are beginning to change. In 2020, the philanthropist MacKenzie Scott donated hundreds of millions of dollars to H.B.C.U.s with no strings attached, part of nearly $6 billion directed to colleges, nonprofits, and charitable organizations. Scott’s $25 million gift to Alcorn State University, for instance, more than doubled the Mississippi school’s endowment overnight. The past three presidential administrations have earmarked substantial federal funds to support H.B.C.U.s as well, with the Biden administration promising more before year’s end. Enrollment is up, too. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as college attendance as a whole has slumped, many H.B.C.U. campuses have seen increased interest — perhaps inspired by high-profile alumni like Vice President Kamala Harris (Howard), or prompted by a desire for refuge and kinship in the face of racist violence and political rhetoric.
The arts — in particular the studio arts — have a complicated history at H.B.C.U.s, where they are by turns celebrated and sequestered. Historically, many of the institutions have roots in vocational training, in agriculture and in trades, which left little time for creative pursuits. In more recent years, that pragmatic spirit has expressed itself in an emphasis on fields like business, economics and most especially STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Though H.B.C.U.s only enroll about 10 percent of Black students, they award 25 percent of all STEM degrees earned by Black undergraduates. With studio art programs being among the most expensive for a university to run, it is no wonder that some H.B.C.U.s have shrunk, consolidated, or cut their arts programs outright. That has led many aspiring Black artists to look elsewhere, particularly for graduate studies.
After graduating from Morehouse, Fordjour earned a master’s in art education at Harvard University and an M.F.A. at New York’s Hunter College. His H.B.C.U. experience, however, gave him purpose. “Hunter exposed me to ways of thinking and gave me a studio for three years, and I’m eternally grateful. But I would say my network and relationship to Morehouse and Spelman [where Fordjour did some of his course work] and that arts community has also really been central in my quest, because I’m always thinking about how I can make space for others,” he says. “I think that’s what you get from the H.B.C.U. education.” Fordjour is in conversation with interdisciplinary artist Sanford Biggers (Morehouse) and painter Calida Rawles (Spelman) to make just such a space, aiming to restore a studio arts major to the Atlanta University Center (A.U.C.), as the consortium that includes Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse, Morehouse School of Medicine, and Spelman is named.
The crisis of studio arts programs is not unique to H.B.C.U.s. “Art departments are expensive. And I think that, given some of the limited resources, maybe administrations have other kinds of priorities in terms of social sciences and other things,” the abstract painter William T. Williams says. Williams fell in love with painting as a high school student in New York in the 1950s, studied at Pratt in the ’60s, then earned his M.F.A. from Yale in 1968. His experience at these prestigious and predominantly white institutions inspired him to imagine how Black artists might find some of the freedom and support he found at Yale outside of the formal educational system. Williams’s vision birthed the artist-in-residence program at New York’s Studio Museum in Harlem, which over the years has helped to foster the careers of Titus Kaphar, Simone Leigh, Kerry James Marshall, Julie Mehretu, Kehinde Wiley and many more. At 79, Williams is especially mindful of budding artists not afforded the opportunity to find their art. “There’s an enormous amount of talent out there, and a lot of it goes unnoticed,” he says. “A lot of kids never get a chance to develop it. Until they’re exposed to what the possibilities are and put in a network where all those things are available, we as a country are losing a lot of talent, a lot of possibilities.”
Bisa Butler could well have ended up as one such lost talent, an artist who didn’t find her art. When she arrived at Howard in the early 1990s, she was on a full-ride scholarship to study architecture — a sensible major with a clear professional trajectory, something that pleased her father, a Ghanaian immigrant and community college president. Butler was a gifted student, but she resisted the conformity of the discipline: The measured gray and black lines on architectural paper were an affront to the unfettered palette of her imagination. Instead, she tried something different, embellishing one architectural assignment with bold colors, hanging phantom portraits on the walls of her imagined building. She spent hours on it. When she received her graded submission, she was shocked to discover that her professor had given her a C. Later that day in her English class, Butler couldn’t suppress her tears. “More than just the grade,” she recalls now, “I felt like they had rejected the part of myself that I thought made my work special.” Her English professor, Carolyn Elizabeth Shuttlesworth-Davidson, took notice. When she learned of her student’s stifled ambitions, she took Butler’s hand and marched her across campus to the office of the dean of the College of Fine Arts, Jeff Donaldson, a co-founder of AfriCOBRA, the Chicago-based artist collective formed in 1968 and dedicated to defining the terms of a Black aesthetic. “This young lady wants to be an artist. Can you help her?” Shuttlesworth-Davidson said. Butler changed her major and spent the remainder of her time on campus exploring her gifts and honing her artistic craft. She moved from painting to working in what has now become her signature style of quilted portraits drawn from images of Black life across the decades. “Just her being there to see me and to listen to me helped redirect my life,” Butler says.
Studying at the Howard art program in the ’90s, Butler found instructors who inculcated a revolutionary pedagogy inspired by the tenets of AfriCOBRA: the so-called Kool-Aid color palette, bold hues inspired by those of African textiles; literal and figurative “shine,” a luminous visual and intellectual quality; and “expressive awesomeness.” “I thought that was so dope,” Butler says. “They wanted our work to look amazing and to have that wow factor.”
Beyond the academic and craft-driven instruction, Butler says, “there’s a social education that HBCUs provide.” At Howard, fondly known as “The Mecca,” that meant a social milieu that included children of diplomats and celebrities, activists and intellectuals, and artists of all types. She recalls seeing both Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. on campus regularly — not to perform but simply to be in the mix. Butler understood herself as part of both an aesthetic avant-garde and a rich tradition with roots in insurgent political movements. Under the direction of Black artists who had come of age in the freedom movements of the 1960s and ’70s, Butler and her classmates were taught that “a huge aspect of the art was art for liberation, not just art for art’s sake.” Generations before, another Howard undergrad, the sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, found her form and her sense of political purpose. “Another aim I have,” Catlett said, “is to take art to our people who do not go to museums and to do this we have to get art by our people into museums.”
Catlett was living in Mexico in 1997 when Howard University made the decision to absorb the College of Fine Arts into the College of Arts and Sciences. The move sparked outrage among alumni and current students who understood the curricular and communal demands of the program necessitating its own institutional home. Among the students who staged a protest during convocation was an aspiring actor and director named Chadwick Boseman. “A bunch of students bum-rushed the stage and were speaking up, saying that we, the art students, need to have our needs recognized because it is a different style of education,” Butler says. Those activist efforts were rebuffed, but just last year, a year after Boseman’s death from colon cancer at the age of 43, Howard announced that it was reinstating the college under a new name: the Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts. The college, which offers courses in music, theater, and fine arts, is headed up by another prominent alumnus, the actress Phylicia Rashad, who is its inaugural dean. In the end, the students won out, thanks to their activism.
“Howard University fine arts students are encouraged to be politically engaged and engaged in the analysis and the representation of themselves and their African American community in their art. And they go out into the world with that engagement very much embedded in their psyches,” says Dr. Lisa E. Farrington, an art historian and Howard alumna who served as associate dean of fine arts and director of the Howard University Gallery of Art. In her capacity as director of the Howard Gallery’s significant holdings, she has followed an activist impulse of her own, working to expand accessibility to the collection through a variety of means. H.B.C.U. museums, Howard’s prime among them, are rich repositories of Black American and Black Diasporic art, with works from Romare Bearden, Aaron Douglas, Sam Gilliam, William H. Johnson, Louis Maliou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis and many others. At any given time, though, much of this work is not on view to the public. That is beginning to change. Extensive efforts in digitizing collections and strategic lending agreements are both important means of expanding accessibility. But the most pressing need for many of these museums is space, which is often in limited supply on campus. “Accessibility,” Farrington says, when asked about her museum’s needs. “If you don’t have that, then you just got a lot of art in a closet.”
Black American art is in the midst of a commercial boom, as evidenced most recently by the $15.3 million sale at Christie’s of North Carolina Central alum Ernie Barnes’s 1976 “Sugar Shack.” (The painting sold for nearly 80 times more than the presale estimate.) H.B.C.U. museums are feeling the impact of this widespread appeal in the form of frequent requests for loans. “We actually turn down more loan requests than we accept,” Farrington says. When Howard does loan out work, as the university recently did to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which borrowed several large Charles White works, or the city’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which took temporary possession of Edmonia Lewis’s “Forever Free” (1867), the school works to negotiate favorable terms. In the case of the more than 150-year-old Lewis sculpture, the university bargained for restoration work, educational programming, and opportunities for Howard students. “In this climate where African American art is so popular, my concern is keeping the art collections at H.B.C.U.s safely and securely at the H.B.C.U.s,” says Dr. Jontyle T. Robinson, curator of the Legacy Museum at Alabama’s Tuskegee University. Robinson stresses the importance, too, of “having African American art conservators and art conservation labs on H.B.C.U. campuses that can care for them.” To that end, she spearheaded the formation of the Alliance of H.B.C.U. Museums and Galleries in 2016.
This activist sensibility is a common thread uniting art programs across many H.B.C.U.s. “You ask our students, ‘What do you want to do? Why are you studying art? Why is it important to you?’ More than likely, they will tell you that they want to do something that is meaningful, they want to create some positive impact in their community or society,” says Solomon Isekeije, professor of fine arts and program coordinator of the division of fine arts at Norfolk State University in Virginia. Norfolk State is home to a thriving undergraduate fine arts major and one of the last remaining M.F.A. studio arts programs on an H.B.C.U. campus, the master of fine arts in visual studies. Just across the Elizabeth River, the storied Hampton University, which claims the oldest H.B.C.U. museum — founded in 1868, it predates the second oldest, at Howard, by sixty years — recently shut down its undergraduate studio arts major. The program at Norfolk State, however, enjoys firm support from the administration and resolute leadership from Isekeije, who has made efforts to forge surprising connections, both on and off campus. “I strongly believe that art does not thrive in isolation, that art has to be in the service of community,” he explains.
Just last year, Isekeije and his students responded to a pressing need to serve their community. Tidewater Gardens, a public-housing project built in the heart of Norfolk in the 1950s and housing 618 units, was slated for demolition. A new mixed-income development with 700 units was promised to replace it, but with only 200 of those designated as low income, it would likely price out most of the former residents of Tidewater Gardens. Some tenants filed a lawsuit against the city, citing a pattern of segregation with a disparate impact on the Black population; the case was settled out of court. With phased demolition beginning in 2021 and completion scheduled for 2025, thousands of the housing complex’s inhabitants were facing a life-changing transition.
When Isekeije was invited to sit on a committee to respond to community needs, he brought his students with him. “They’re there to listen, to gather information,” he says, “so when we go back to the studio, we can figure out how to create an artistic project to address people’s concerns.” Another definition of design, he tells his students, is “a solution to a problem.” Isekeije’s students conceived several. One of these, which they titled “Happy Meal,” involved celebrating the foodways of the community. “One of the things that stood out to me and to my students was that even though the residents had these tiny little apartments, there were a number of residents who grew vegetable gardens,” Isekeije says. “They would come together and have these block parties where people would bring different types of dishes. Food brought people together. Gardening brought people together. Dance brought people together.”
The other project the students conceived, called “Tidewater Together,” involved memorializing the familiar geography of the neighborhood as a way of helping residents to mourn and to heal. Residents wrote down the names of the streets where they had lived, and Isekeije’s students took those street names and created signs, which they collaged onto a signpost rendered on canvas. Once the materials had set, they tore the street names off by hand, figuratively manifesting the trauma of displacement. The team then reconstructed the street signs, this time in vibrant colors and clean script, signaling the promise of a new beginning. “We were trying to capture the experience the residents were going through at that time,” Isekeije says, “and also to create hope for the future.”
The future of Black art, at H.B.C.U.s and beyond, is inextricably bound up with its past. “It’s important to remember that Black people have been making art for centuries,” Fordjour says. He recalls an encounter with Ed Clark, the abstract expressionist from New Orleans’s Storyville district, who attended the Art Institute of Chicago in the late 1940s and early 1950s before moving to Paris to study at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Fordjour was among a group of younger Black artists surrounding Clark at an exhibition in New York near the end of the older artist’s life. He regaled them with stories of his many travels. “Man, you know what these Parisians would do when Picasso would walk down the street?” Fordjour recalls Clark saying. “They would drop their bread and clap for him.” Fordjour was spellbound by Clark’s words, but also unnerved. “In that moment, I realized that Ed Clark had lived at the same time that Picasso did,” he says. “In my mind, Picasso and Rothko and all these other guys existed in some other universe. Because the Ed Clarks of the world had been so thoroughly segregated from the lineage of the artists we consider the greats. At the very moments when Jasper Johns and Ed Rauschenberg and all these guys were working, Black artists were in their studios working, too. So this talk of moments is really about fame and fortune. But the work? We remain invested in the work and let the trends move around us.”