- Talking Howard University, DC-MD, and Visual ArtA Conversation with Floyd Coleman
The text that follows is an edited and revised interview that was conducted by email for this special issue of Callaloo • Art. Thanks to Floyd Coleman for taking time out from his many projects to answer the questions I sent to him for this interview. Thanks also to Jeremy M. Clark, a new member of the Callaloo staff, for the sterling editorial work he continues to perform for the journal.
I want to begin our conversation by interrogating the very purpose of its central concern: the history and significance of the black visual art scene in Washington, DC, from the beginnings of the twentieth century to the late-1950s. As far as I know (and I hope you will correct me if I am misreading the current intellectual or academic scene), no one has written and published a thorough or detailed book-length history focusing exclusively on DC-MD (or just Washington alone) and, especially, on Howard University as sites that have made an indelible impact on the development of American visual art—especially its African American component. This absence is a major problem. Will you comment on the need and importance of such a history? What would you argue are some of the subjects and issues such a book-length history must address?
You are quite right. At this point, no one has written and published a book-length history that focuses on DC-MD (or Washington alone) and which also explores Howard University as an important site in an expanded narrative of twentieth-century American art, and of African American art in particular. When I analyze the components, the subtexts and implications of the issues you raised suggest to me the need for multiple volumes in order to attempt to take full measure of the Washington, DC, art scene from the first years of the twentieth century forward.
Given my general knowledge of African American art, my having served as a Howard University faculty member (as chair of the Department of Art, briefly as director of the Gallery of Art), I know a treasure trove of information exists that could be the core for a series of publications. Hence, rather than an encyclopedic volume, I believe book-length publications could be written on the following: African American Art and Artists in DC and Baltimore, ca. 1895 to 1930; Art at Howard University, 1920s to the 1960s; A Special Space: DC's Barnett-Aden Gallery; and Art at Howard University, 1960s to 2003. [End Page 1155]
Book-length publications could also be written on: James V. Herring, James A. Porter (Alumna Starmanda Bullock wrote her doctoral dissertation on Porter and curated a retrospective exhibition with accompanying catalogue; she has completed a book-length manuscript on Porter that is in submission); James Lesesne Wells (Richard J. Powell has written most insightful essays on Wells), Loïs Mailou Jones (Tritobia Hayes Benjamin published The Life and Art of Loïs Mailou Jones, 1994), David C. Driskell (Julie L. McGee published David C. Driskell: Artist and Scholar, 2006); Ed Love (important catalogue essays have been written on Love, including an essay by Robert Farris Thompson); Jeff Donaldson (a few essays exist, but he deserves a book-length, critical study); Jeff Donaldson and the Black Arts Movement (Donaldson was the foremost visual artist and visual arts advocate of the Black Arts Movement; in many ways, he was comparable in the visual arts as Amiri Baraka was to the literary arts of the BAM); Alexander "Skunder" Boghossian (although there were other African artists who taught at Howard, either as full-time faculty or as artist-in-residence, Skunder had the greatest impact on art at Howard and African American art from the 1970s forward).
Others of great interest, and worthy of monographs, would include: Tritobia Hayes Benjamin (art historian, student of Porter and Driskell, legendary teacher),Winston Kennedy, Starmanda Bullock, Winnie Owens Hart, Alfred J. Smith, E. Sorrells-Adewale, Lila Oliver Asher (Euro-American, longtime professor of drawing), and Frank Smith.
Additional publications are needed on outstanding alumni such as Alma Thomas, Elizabeth Catlett, Delilah...