4 Questions With One Of the World's Leading African American Art Scholars

In 1976 the American art landscape changed with the publication of the exhibit catalogue Two Centuries of Black American Art, held at the Los Angeles County Museum. With this single publication, African American art began its ascent in the American Art community. The curator of this exhibit was the now internationally respected artist, scholar, and historian, Dr. David C. Driskell.

Dr. Driskell is considered one of the founders of the discipline of African American art. He received his undergraduate degree from Howard University in 1955 and his Masters of Fine Arts from Catholic University in 1962. In 1977, Dr. Driskell joined the faculty of the University of Maryland, College Park, becoming Chairman of the Art Department in 1978.

As teacher and lecturer, Dr. Driskell is a premier advocate for the recognition and acknowledged importance of African American artists, and its history. As a scholar and teacher, Dr. Driskell stresses and emphasizes the importance of proper documentation and cataloging of the works of African American artists such as Romare Bearden, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Elizabeth Catlett, William H. Johnson, and Horace Pippin, as well as new artists beginning their careers. Had it not been for the publication of Two Centuries of Black American Art, many of those artists would have forever remained unknown.

Since the publication of Two Centuries of Black American Art, Professor Driskell has published numerous articles and essays, as well as being the subject of publications on his work and his impact on the landscape of African American rt.  Since 1977, Dr. Driskell has served as cultural advisor to Camille and William H. Cosby and curator of the Cosby Collection of Fine Arts. In 2006, Julie L. McGee published Dr. Driskell’s biography, David C. Driskell: Artist and Scholar in , followed in 2007 by the publication of Evolution: Five Decades of Printmaking by David Driskell by Adrienne L. Childs.

Known also as a master printmaker, Dr. Driskell uses woodcuts, lithography, silkscreen techniques, as well as working in the mediums of college, oil, watercolor, and acrylic. Dr. Driskell’s work is on display in galleries and museums such as the National Gallery of Art, the Corcoran Gallery, the Yale Art Gallery, the High Museum of Art, and the DC Moore Gallery in New York.

President William Jefferson Clinton awarded Dr. Driskell the National Humanities Medal in 2000.  Subsequently, 2001 saw the creation of the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora at the University of Maryland, College Park. Adding to the numerous awards and honors received by Dr. Driskell, Emmy Award winning journalist Renee Poussant interviewed Dr. Driskell in 2011 as part of the National Visionary Leadership Project. Co-founded by educator Camille O. Cosby and Ms. Poussant in 2001, this project records the oral history of African American elders and leaders who shaped the 20th century; it is archived at the Library of Congress.

The following interview with Dr. Driskell focuses on African American art in America during the time of President Obama’s administration, how Dr. Driskell describes his own work, and the omnipresent need for young artists to learn African American art history

Karen von Winbush (KVW): First, thank you for agreeing to the interview. It is honor and privilege to speak with you about your work, and African American art in our culture today. My first question is this: Since the election of this nation’s first African American president, should African American art still be referred to as "African American art"? Does it receive the respect it deserves?

Dr. Driskell (DD): Even though the nation has elected the first African American president, and for a second term, the cultural agenda in most of the arts has changed very little. Women and minorities remain ... at the mercy of a white male dominated society when important cultural decisions are made, particularly in the visual arts. Very few African Americans occupy decision-making positions in mainstream museums that could inform the public of the vast number of unrepresented artists whose work deserves a larger audience. Without knowledge of who these artists are, they are seldom mentioned in the social media. For such reasons, we should continue to use the label, African American, in order to bring visibility to their work in the compendium. It is a known fact that back artists make art in the same manner as others do but somehow, some people, art critics in particular, often expect special racial content to be the determining factor as to whether or not an artist is black enough and worthy of being included in the compendium. In the final analysis, it is all American art, most often “made in America.”   

KVW: How would you describe your work – visionary, poetic, sensory blues or jazz — in order to illustrate the African American experience in America and as a community?

DD: All art emanates from within the mind of the maker. His or her racial identity, particularly since we place so much emphasis on race in American, may come into play in the area of subject selection, yet it does not always have to. I have consciously added the racial equation to the content of my work because race is an important factor in my definition of community. Much of what is seen in my work is based in memory and personal identity, African American identity. Therefore, I would say my religious upbringing also influences my subject matter. Using your musical terms, I think blues but relevant, when appropriate, to all such conditions. Visionary (inspiration from my faith); poetic, blues and jazz (life experiences.)  

KVW: In the art world, you are known especially for your master print work and painting. What would you say is your greatest success?

DD: I would say, the successes of those hundreds, maybe thousands of students over the years I had the opportunity to teach and mentor who are now around the nation working as artists, art curators, scholars and in related fields in major museums across the country. That is special.

KVW: As a final question, what are your thoughts as to why the accomplishments of African American artists, past and present – may be unknown or overlooked by young artist? Why is this history unknown to us?

DD: We have a great deal to do when it comes to educating young African Americans, indeed all Americans, about true and full art history. We are stewards of our gifts, our talents. Americans come from numerous and rich cultures to be explored for inspiration. To share our story. Very few young people, across racial lines, have concrete knowledge of race and culture in this nation. Most of them (young artist and art students) live in a different world, one that is informed by social media too often lacking in sound history. Within the art community, young artists need to believe in their work, take part in the world outside of their window and trust their memory and who they are and their own history to add to their work. All of us are artists in some fashion and we need to let that artist out, in order to make changes in the way the world and indeed the [way the] art Community view[s] African American art. We have come a long way and the journey is just beginning.

   

Please note that Non-Exclusive rights are granted to PolicyMic to display images of the following works of art in their publication:

David Driskell – Woman with Flowers, 1972. Oil and Collage on canvas.  37 ½ x 38 ½ inches.  Courtesy of the artist and DC Moore Gallery

David Driskell – Homage to Romare, 1976.  Collage and gouache on Masonite.  23 ½ x 29 ½.  Courtesy of the artist and DC Moore Gallery.