Honoring the Black Artists of Howard University

The Phillips Collection Fellow and Howard University student Arianna Adade reflects on the 34th James A. Porter Colloquium on African American Art and Art of the African Diaspora (you can view the livestream of the proceedings at The Phillips Collection on April 5 on YouTube) and the installation of Where We Meet: Selections from the Howard University Gallery of Art and The Phillips Collection (on view through August 15, 2024).

From left to right: Elizabeth Catlett, Black Girl, 2004, Lithograph, Howard University Gallery of Art, and Alma W. Thomas, Breeze Rustling through Fall Flowers, 1968, Acrylic on canvas, The Phillips Collection, Gift of Franz Bader, 1976

When people think of Howard University, art may not be the initial thought that comes to mind. However, Howard is home to some of the most revolutionary Black artists. From Sylvia Snowden and Lois Mailou Jones to David Driskell and Elizabeth Catlett, Howard is home to trailblazing Black artists that are often under-appreciated in today’s art world.

David Driskell, Figures, 1954, Oil on canvas, Howard University Gallery of Art.

I had an amazing experience viewing Where We Meet: Selections from the Howard University Gallery of Art and The Phillips Collection. Seeing the legendary Alma Thomas and Elizabeth Catlett’s works side by side was beautiful to witness—Catlett’s black-and-white lithograph adjacent to Thomas’s multicolored acrylic canvas highlighted the remarkable contribution Black women have given to the art world. The unique works of art on view gave me an even deeper appreciation for Howard as a grounding source for Black artistic talent throughout the centuries.

Afro-Cuban art shined brightly within the exhibit, capturing the essence of cultural and ancestral fusions and legacies in Howard’s art collection. Wifredo Lam, known for his contribution to Afro-Cuban artistic expression particularly stood out to me. Howard has always been known as the heart of Black diasporic identities, and it is no different pertaining to art.

Wifredo Lam, Exodus, 1948, Oil on burlap, Howard University Gallery of Art, Gift of Arthur B. Spingarn, New York, 1951

The Phillips’s connection to Howard began with the establishment of the Howard University Gallery of Art in 1928 under the leadership of James A. Porter. The Phillips Collection was seen as an intimate space for the art talent at Howard, as many students would come to the museum when they were excluded from other museums during segregation. Howard professor James Lesesne Wells is just one of many artists whom the Phillips family valued and his work was acquired by Duncan Phillips, making Wells one of the first Black artists to be acquired by a major Washington museum. Wells was an influential figure in Black art, as he was a mentor to some of the most well-known icons of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Jacob Lawrence and Charles Alston.

Top to bottom: James Lesene Wells, Journey to Egypt, 1931, Oil on canvas mounted on cardboard, The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1931. James Lesene Wells, Adoration of the Magi, 1950, Oil on canvas, Howard University Gallery of Art

Attending Howard University’s 34th James A. Porter Colloquium on Friday, April 5, was enlightening, to say the least. As a Black woman, it was inspiring to be in the presence of so many Black women (many of whom are Howard alumni) who serve in impactful positions in major museums around the country. From curators to directors and educators alike, these women continue to break down barriers and reshape the narrative of representation in the art world.

Left to right: Camille Brown, Assistant Curator, The Phillips Collection; Jessica Bell Brown, Curator and Department Head of Contemporary Art, Baltimore Museum of Art; Dr. Adrienne Childs, Senior Consulting Curator, The Phillips Collection; Dr. Elyse Nelson, Assistant Curator of European Sculpture, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Dr. Denise Murrell. Associate Curator, Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Even though Black women are the most underrepresented in museums as employees and artists, there was no underrepresentation of intelligence, resilience, and talent present at the Colloquium. I am so grateful to witness the wisdom and knowledge of individuals with whom I share similar backgrounds have such an impact on the contemporary art world. Their presence and contributions not only reshape their art institutions but also pave the way for future generations of Black women, such as myself, to finally see themselves reflected in these once-exclusive spaces.

Left to right: Jada Brooks, Art Major in Photography, Howard University; Taylor Aldridge, Visual Arts Curator and Program Manager,  California African American Museum (CAAM), Los Angeles; Dr. Rhea Combs,  Director of Curatorial Affairs, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC; Kinshasha Holman Conwill, Deputy Director Emeritus, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture; Dr. Gwendolyn Everett, Associate Dean, Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts, Howard University; and Sacha Reid, Interdisciplinary Humanities Major and Painting Minor, Howard University

In the Studio with Joel Crooms

Joel Croom’s Soweto Woman is currently on view in the Digital Window Exhibition space at Phillips@THEARC as part of the Digital Intersections series. The Phillips Collection Fellow Arianna Adade met with the artist to talk about his practice.

Joel Crooms, Photo: Tony Powell

How does your art challenge the conventional ideas of Black identity in contemporary culture?

The use of “abstraction” has, is, and will be for some time a challenge to the popular idea of “Black Art.” Many experience dissonance with seeing work by Black artists in any form other than figurative historical or idealized images. I often have to explain that decorative works on the exterior of African homes are examples of abstract art.

In addition, Islamic calligraphy “Adinkra” symbols and hieroglyphics are abstracted glyphs. Paraphrasing Sam Gilliam, “Black artists making abstract art is in itself a radical revolutionary self-defining act.”

Joel Crooms studio

What are some of the Afrofuturist symbolisms and mythologies present in your artwork(s)?

The use of digitally generated elements “bits and bytes” in my work is the strongest aspect of futuristic symbolism. This aspect may not be evident to the viewer, and involves using plastics, LED lighting, and sound. An evolving situation for me personally as a diaspora artist is the use of international icons and glyphs from the myriad locations we find ourselves in the world.

Joel Crooms, When I Saw Her Eyes

What artists from the Black Arts Movement inspired you and why?

As a young artist coming of age in the 1970s, the consciousness-changing Black Arts Movement expanded my creative horizons. The idols and mentors came from diverse media—plastic, literary, cinema, dance, music. There are those recognized by the dominant society to some degree and so many others known to the arts community who aren’t acknowledged.

Some popular names are Sam Gilliam, Alma Thomas, Ben Jones, and Barbara Chase-Riboud, who blew my mind. Benny Andrews, Ademola Olugebefola of the WEUSI group, and Betye Saar as well. These artists showed me and many others that we can indeed be professional groundbreaking creatives.

Joel Crooms, Red Lady with Flowers

How do your works contribute to the conversations within Afrofuturism?

I feel that doing work that pushes beyond my current capabilities and interests will spark inquiry and debate. I want to show that there are no limits. Open your mind.

Science fiction comics in particular, Heavy Metal with the inclusion of Black characters made me feel as though there was space for us in that genre. However, many seem reluctant to talk about Blacks’ involvement in the work. We still make folks uncomfortable.

Joel Crooms studio

What do you envision for the future of Afrofuturism in art?

That Afrofuturism will create universal and cosmic work far beyond anything we’ve experienced yet.

Morning Creativity by Joel Crooms

Welcome to the Bonnard Salon

Public Programming Intern Erich Brubaker shares the genesis behind the Bonnard Salon, created in conjunction with the exhibition Bonnard’s Worlds (on view through June 2, 2024).

When you think of the word “salon,” what first comes to mind? Maybe you think of hairdressers or nail technicians; perhaps you envision an event related to artists gathering; or, maybe you imagine a luxurious room in a historic mansion. While the French origin of the word in the 1600s refers to a reception room, the word “salon” has had very specific meanings in different places and contexts over the past few hundred years. Today, it conjures an image of intimacy and togetherness, a theme The Phillips Collection is excited to explore through the Bonnard Salon.

In Pierre Bonnard’s world—France at the fin de siècle and into the early 20th century—a “salon” was an organized showcase of artworks, run by established art institutions and promoting traditional, classical art. As art exhibitions shifted from the exclusive, official salons of the 1700s to more informal showcases with more expressive avant-garde art, Bonnard participated in and created posters for salons, including the second inaugural Salon des Cent in 1896, a public exhibition in Paris where artists sold posters, prints, and reproductions.

This exhibition coincided with the rise of accessible and informal gatherings of artists and collectors. These gatherings for people to talk about the art, music, and literature of the time came to be called salons. They met in intimate spaces around Paris to exchange information and spark inspiration. It is in these settings where Bonnard and his fellow Nabis artists discussed Symbolism, mysticism, modern art, and design.

Guests in the Bonnard Salon

To accompany the exhibition Bonnard’s Worlds, The Phillips Collection presents the Bonnard Salon, an intimate space where guests can more deeply engage with artist Pierre Bonnard and his relationship with The Phillips Collection. The Salon (located in House Floor 2U, adjacent to the Bonnard’s Worlds galleries) is open during regular museum hours for browsing materials from the Phillips Archives. The Salon will also host weekly opportunities to engage, including intimate presentations hosted by Phillips educators, conservators, and archivists, as well as workshops inspired by the artist. Programs in the Bonnard Salon take place Fridays, March 8 through May 31, from 12–1 pm; reservations are required and space is limited, included with cost of admission.

Guest in the Bonnard Salon

We look forward to welcoming you into our home to engage and learn! Visit https://www.phillipscollection.org/bonnard-salon to learn more and register.

Furniture and accessories in the Bonnard Salon generously provided by Room&Board.