- ReminiscingValerie Cassel Oliver and Richard J. Powell in Conversation
I am truly excited to recollect about your time in Washington, DC, and at Howard University. Both are important sites in the establishment of so much, but especially contextualizing and preserving the history of visual arts by African American and African Diasporic artists. I have prepared a few questions, but, really, I want you to reminisce—think back on your time in Washington, DC, and at Howard. How did you get there? Who was there? What were the dynamics of the community, the arts community, especially. I arrived in the late-1980s, so to hear you speak about what happened in the 1970s is exciting.
It’s my pleasure.
So . . . in the beginning you were at Morehouse College, and you would later leave Atlanta for Washington. What brought you to Washington, DC? [End Page 153]
Well, it actually goes back to a group of guys in my class at Morehouse College. I believe it was 1974, and my junior year. We decided to go to Howard University to check out the school for possible graduate study. And why did we think about Howard? I guess we were all interested in different things. My roommate was an English major, and I was an art major. There were some in our group who were interested in other aspects of studying at Howard, and one fellow had a car, so we just drove there to check it out in advance. And I’ll never forget going to the Art Department and introducing myself to Jeff Donaldson on that trip. Also, walking around the department a little bit and just getting a flavor for the things that were happening in the studio. It was a good trip, and I came back to Atlanta determined that’s where I wanted to do graduate work. It’s kind of strange when I think back on it. I believe that was the only MFA program I applied to, and I got in.
That’s pretty amazing. You mentioned Jeff Donaldson being there. I believe, at that point, he had all but completed his dissertation at Northwestern University. At any rate, it was amazing to come into a program where you had a founding member of AfriCOBRA serving as chair. He had just stepped down when I arrived in the late-1980s. Floyd Coleman took over as chair of the art department, but Donaldson was then dean of the school. He brought in others in the group—people like Frank Smith and Wadsworth Jarrell and later James Phillips. Donaldson was instrumental. His being there, not only as an artist but also as a scholar, was key. It set the tone and provided an important context for understanding the artistic output of black artists. So, I think it’s very interesting that you found yourself at Howard at that particular time. But Donaldson was the new generation. Who else was there and what expectations were set upon you as a young artist coming into the field? It must have been a very heavy time to be there.
Yes, I should also say that the other reason I was directed to Howard was that I was about to go to Nigeria the following summer, and Jeff was the orchestrator of the North American contingent for FESTAC (the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture), which was soon taking place in Nigeria. Jeff had a reputation for being a leader in terms of gathering people under the rubric of black American art. FESTAC actually didn’t happen until 1977, but I was about go to Nigeria (in 1974) and had gotten a sense of this major, international, black diasporic thing that was about to happen
Was this the inaugural event or had it been going on for a while?
It didn’t launch until 1977.
So this was the inaugural?
It took place in 1977, although it was supposed to happen in 1975, but they had to wait because they needed to raise more money or something. The irony...