For most of American history, African-Americans have been considered and treated as inferiors. Their folksongs and tales have been benignly looked upon as harmless, meaningless expressions of a dull-witted race whose only contribution to American life was a strong back and a weak mind. Even after the Civil War, the ingrown prejudices continued to relegate the freedmen to the bottom rung of a strict caste ladder. Their folklore was repeatedly ignored or belittled. Only since the coming of black awareness, pioneered by men like W. Dubois and Frederick Douglas, has the African American community realized that their culture is uniquely American and singularly important to the understanding and establishment of the American cultural and artistic scene. It is one of the few elements of their heritage that they can look back on and recognize as valuable in America's development. This is the essence of the black folksongs, stories, and art; they fill a void and force recognition of the African American contribution. These superstitions and folklore from the past demonstrate the influences wielded upon African Americans of today, as well as pave the way for a new form of folklore, which is told through art.
In order to effectively illustrate the progression and correlation of early African American folklore and the emergence of a new breed of artist, a specific group of artist all utilizing the same type of art form will be discussed. Therefore, the focus of this paper will be on recent African American artist in Houston, Texas; all of whom utilize place-specific art to convey their images and messages. Before discussing the current art movement, it is vital to understand the history of the superstitions and folklore which are the inspiration for Houston's place-specific art.
A Brief History of African American Superstition and Folklore Since their arrival on American soil, African Americans have contributed to our collective culture. Their songs, poems, stories, spirituals, and proverbs, while at times reinforcing the white theory of supremacy, gave them a foundation of identity that was passed from generation to generation. The ghost stories and superstitions are probably the best known examples of early black culture. This is because white men used them as a means to prove the black's innate inferiority to whites. They ignored the obvious fact; all cultures posses similar superstitions, even their own.
The problem in collecting and evaluating black folklore is the misinterpretation and lack of understanding of early black dialects. "We must read the transcriptions with some care and occasionally wonder what the white man did when they were confronted by sounds strange to their ears; some tried to transcribe the actual sound, but others, assuming mispronunciation made editorial corrections...and some expecting alien sounds misinterpreted and misheard."1 The innate prejudices of many recorders helped to distort the materials. Still the black dialect presented a road block to communication between the races. The notion of a nation within a nation arose from this language barrier. The dialect that evolved within the segregated nation was a combination of West African languages and English, and became known as the plantation dialect.2 It was with this misunderstood dialect that African Americans passed on their superstitions.
Black superstition encompassed many themes. It covered procedures to insure good luck, healthy children, harmony, good crops, and a myriad of other situations. The theme of luck was the most prevalent superstition, namely the attainment of good fortune and the avoidance of bad luck. For example, a pepper bush in the yard brings good luck3; it is good luck for a buzzard to light on your house on a Monday4; and, if you are deeply depressed in spirits, it is a sure sign that you will hear good news.5 Additionally, the avoidance of bad luck was a mainstay of their beliefs. They held to an inordinate number of rules that were intended to prevent misfortune. Everything from fishing rods, old gloves, spiders, nose bleeds, and the familiar black cat were all precursors of an ill-fate. Perhaps the preponderance of luck-omens and slogans familiar today grew out of early black superstitions. Their existence was difficult enough without added misfortune. Any means they could utilize to ward off bad luck was not to be ignored.
Another aspect of their superstition concerned agriculture. Naturally, the bulk of blacks only knew the routine associated with their rural surroundings. Their primary job was to work the land. So it follows that they would form superstitions concerning nature. Weather was an indicator of the future, as were seeds and farm animals. When shelling butterbeans for planting, throw the hulls in the road. If they are burned, your crop will be poor; if fed to the cows, the stock will eat your vines; if thrown in the trash, not only will your crop be poor, but your stock will not reproduce and your wife will not bear children.6
The pattern that emerges is that African Americans believed in nature as an indicator of luck. They felt that God did not control the flow of events; it was man himself who brought either good or bad luck upon himself.
The question of superstition is not whether blacks should be chided for these beliefs, but that it was a viable means of communicating folklore. J Mason Brewer asserts in his introduction to American Negro Folklore that wherever blacks lived, superstitions existed. While there may have been places where groups of blacks had no tales, songs or rhymes in their living tradition, they always had superstition; it was omnipresent in all black communities.7 Superstition remained a two-edged sword; it carried their culture ably, but also added to the prejudice held by whites.
Prior to the Civil War, Houston had a slave population greater than or equal to Mobile and New Orleans.8 Therefore, these superstitions and folklore played a large role in the development of African American culture in Houston, and they remain prevalent themes in the place-specific art of present day African American artist in Houston.
Place-specific Art Before the artist and their works can be discussed, it is necessary to define and discuss the concept of place-specific art. The term place-specific art was coined by Lucy R. Lippard in Lure of the Local to encompass art that reveals new depths of a place, to engage the viewer or inhabitant. According to Lippard, place-specific art would have an organic connection to its locale and cannot be looked at primarily as an object outside of the viewer/inhabitant's life. It must take root outside of conventional art venues and would not be accessible only to those enticed by publicity and fashion. It should become at least temporarily part of, or a criticism of, the day-to-day environment , making places mean more to those who live or spend time their.9
Since the birth of Houston, African Americans have generally had it better than other African Americans around the country. This is even true of pre-Civil War slaves, who enjoyed more free time and compensation than rural slaves.10 But the truth then, as it is now, is that African Americans have had to struggle to find a voice that expressed their culture and heritage. Once again, the white majority's lack of understanding the black dialect made this an especially arduous task Where early slaves used folklore and superstitions to pass along their life stories, modern artist have used public art as their voice. And this voice tells the stories of the past, as well as the struggles faced by African Americans today. As the art shows, these struggles are not too dissimilar from those of the past. Their art cares about, challenges, involves, and consults the audience for or with whom it is made, respecting community and environment.11
The Artist and the Art The Art Park If place-specific art is supposed to be an organic extension of the place it resides in or on, then Houston is home to some of the most representational forms of this type of art. There are hundreds of African American artist in Houston practicing this art form. Some of these artist are hardly known, even to the models who serve as inspiration to the art. Joggers, cyclists, and power-walkers using the hike-and-bike trails beneath the Sabine St. bridge along the shores of Buffalo Bayou pretend not to notice Bobby, the Korean War vet and former "C&W" steel guitarist who lives beneath the bridge. Bobby's home is in the heart of Houston's Art Park.12 If the passers-by do not take notice of Bobby and the other denizens of the Art Park, they surely do not see Karen Garrett-Coon's Home Sweet Home directly across the bayou from Bobby's shelter. It is a life-size fiberglass work representing the dwelling of a homeless person. Coon claims she used Bobby's home as her model. Bobby claims he has never noticed it. If art can truly mirror life, it can never exactly replicate the reality; the real life remains more compelling than the artist could ever hope to recapture. Bobby's camp is far richer and moving than Coon's interpretation of it.13
The Art Park was one of the earliest examples of place-specific art in Houston, allowing African American artists an opportunity to enhance and beautify a seldom used stretch of Buffalo Bayou. This park also made this highly symbolic art form available to many people who might not other wise attempt to view it. Additionally, the park has provided an outlet for some African American artist to visually represent important elements of their cultural heritage to the predominately white population that works downtown and utilizes the hike-and-bike trails of the park.
Project Row Houses Artist have historically been leaders in urban reclamation, from neighborhoods such as Paris' Montmarte in the 1920's and New York's SoHo in the 1970's. Houston's artist have attempted to reclaim a neighborhood in historic Third Ward. These eight little shotgun houses are Houston's greatest example of place-specific art that gives a booming voice to the residents of this once dilapidated neighborhood. Not only are these little wood-frame structures a source of pride for those who live amongst them every day, but they offer hope and understanding to all who enter or view them.
To African Americans, row houses are a sign of freedom, introduced to the United States by freed Haitians in the 19th century. Many of these closely-assembled homes were built in clusters in what became known as Freedman's Town.
This 22-house compound-turned-art was almost demolished, which would have led to the further decline of the area. But instead, African American artist Rick Lowe rescued the historic structures and committed to transform them into a vital community resource for their primarily African American neighborhood.14 The project has been aptly named Project Row House, and houses installations by eight artist for periods of five months. Each artist receives a $2,000 stipend, and the house is prepared by seven sponsoring individuals and organizations, according to each artist's specifications. Annette Lawrence, a former professor of art at the University of Houston-Downtown, was one of the first artist to set up shop when the Project opened in 1994. Lawrence used stones to create murals depicting and representing African American folklore. "The stones have a dual importance in my work. They are the medium to create the art, but they are also representational of the labor endured by African Americans and their ancestors. Slaves were used to begin the construction of this City of Concrete, and African Americans still sweat and toil to maintain it."15
The project is place-specific, as it was not created for the sake of art, instead it too what-was, and transformed it into art. One artist, Tracy Hicks, passed out disposable cameras to the local residents, and told them to take pictures of their daily lives. After developing the film, she placed pictures in glass canning jars and placed them on shelves throughout the house. Thus did the artist and the community collaborate. They not only created the art, they were the art.16 Even though there is still often a language barrier between African Americans and other groups, words are not necessary to understand the stories told by this project.
Other local residents have been inspired by the project as well. Bennie Boyd works on his art outside his nearby home, creating elaborate, architecturally interesting churches using nothing but match-sticks. Mr. Charles Payne continues carving walking sticks from fallen branches, and is quick to show off the letter he received from Lyndon B. Johnson, thanking him for a stick. And of course there is Earnestine W. Courtney, known throughout the Third Ward as Miss Courtney. She continues passing folklore down to future generations using the old oral traditions of her ancestors.
The Project has managed to transcend art and become a vital source of community pride, reminding everyone who sees them of the legacy of their earliest residents. Seven more shotgun houses are homes for unwed teenage mothers. Five other houses are used for other services, such as a day-care center. Lowe's vision of creating a community center that would combine art with social action was the culmination of the efforts of many people. Funded by government arts grants, private foundations and corporate donations, including a $62,000 grant from the National Endowment of Arts, the project has garnered national acclaim.17
Pillars of the Community The Art Park was the beginning of a fifteen year plan to renovate the Buffalo Bayou waterfront. The most recent contribution to the renovation is similar to the Art Park and Project Row House in that it is the collective work of many urban residents and its placement is as relevant as its content. The pillars are seven 70-foot-high pillars located on the otherwise barren walls of the Wortham Center. The Pillars of the Community are a collection of drawings that illustrate seven aspects of Houston's history- agriculture, energy, medicine, manufacturing, philanthropy, technology, and transportation. The drawings were done by local inner-city school children who were born in 1986, the year of Texas' sesquicentennial, and the name of the park that the pillars loom above. The children's drawings were translated into laser-cut designs on stainless-steel plates, from which the pillars are constructed. Several of the pillar themes are similar to themes of early African American folklore and superstition, such as agriculture.
The pillars were conceived by Houston-born artist Mel Chin. While the artist is not African American, many of the contributing children are. And many of their drawings clearly depict their African American heritage. Once again, ordinary Houston citizens have become artist, and some have even become art, as pictures they drew of themselves adorn the pillars. The pillars will be lighted each night, serving as beacons to the park. Not only do the pillars light up the park, but they illuminate all who view them. Imagine the pride of the contributors when they stand before the pillars twenty years from now, and point out their art to their own children. The tradition of passing along folklore will be continued.18
Juneteenth Place-specific art is not always represented by physical art works. Such is the case of Houston's annual Juneteenth celebration. On June 19, 1865- ten weeks after Confederate soldiers surrendered at Appomattox, Union General Gordon Granger landed in Galveston and proclaimed the freedom of Texas slaves. Spontaneous freedom celebrations erupted.
In 1979, with the passing of House Bill 1016, Texas became the first state to honor African Americans with a holiday. Juneteenth is a two week festival consisting of a blues festivals, arts and crafts, a Gospel Extravaganza, and a Freedom Festival. This is a time when African Americans can gather, be proud of their heritage, and continue passing down stories of their ancestors. During Junteenth celebrations there is an emphasis on the Community Artist Collectives, which displays works by local black artist.19
John Biggers The art works mentioned above- the Art Park, Project Row Houses, Pillars of the Community, and Juneteenth all share one common element: they are all art works created by a community. It that regard, they serve as a binding thread amongst the people who contributed to them. These place-specific arts enhance the communities they reside in by representing the stories of their collective past, as well as their continued struggle to find a voice that will not be misunderstood, but instead will reveal a pride of heritage and culture.
But any discussion of African American artist from Houston would be incomplete without including the story and art of John Biggers. John Biggers has dedicated his life to creating art that is meaningful. His is renowned for his murals and his emphasis on African American culture. He was also one of the first African American artists to study and live in West Africa and to bring back images of African culture that were positive and personal, and accurate.20
Biggers was born in racially divided Gastonia, N.C. and began shaping and drawing things from mud beneath his house from the time he was a child. After receiving a formal art education in Hampton, VA., Biggers began to see his art "not primarily as an individual expression of talent, but as a responsibility to reflect the spirit and style of the Negro people."21 Biggers moved to Houston for several reasons. One was the proximity to Mexico, with its rich tradition of muralists. He felt that blacks in Houston had recognition from the community at large, but mostly he " wanted to get involved with and attempt to express the lifestyle and spiritual aspirations of the black people. The richness of it was here."22
But while Biggers' works were clearly about African American history and culture, he has also captured the essence of one species in one world. His portraits of African American women are portraits of all women, just as his images of black men at work and play bring to mind the Russian miner and the Australian ranch hand. John Biggers' images are distinct, yet he will not permit them to be distinct from other humans.23
Biggers murals are a magnificent example of place-specific art. Salt Marsh, a mural dedicated to the University of Houston-Downtown in 1997, is a symbolic landscape that weaves patterns and symbols based on African myths with the human and animal inhabitants of the salt marsh that existed near the university before Houston's founding. This mural takes on new dimensions of place-specific art for Biggers. Not only does the mural depict what once stood in its place, but it is an educational tool in a place of learning. But more than that, the art truly belongs to the students. Students were able to watch the artist slowly and patiently construct the mural, layer by layer. Biggers never seemed too busy to stop and explain the symbolism of a particular image, or the meaning of the entire work. Often times Biggers would halt his labor to entertain questions from inner-city school children on a field-trip. Two students were honored by being able to contribute their own original sketches and paintings to the mural. Thus the students had become part of the art once again.24 Through his legacy of art, Biggers has been able to change images of poverty into perceptions of honest, simple dignity. "Individual life is very short, " he says, "All things rise and fall, live and die. But if we agree the spirit does not die, that it reinhabits the world, time takes a different dimension.25
Houston has led the way in developing a new form of art, which is sensitive to its surroundings. Projects such as the Art Park, Project Row Houses, Juneteenth, the Pillars of the Community, and the murals of John Biggers have given African Americans a new voice to rejoice in their heritage as they pass along folklore from generations ago. But just as art reflects real life, there is still a long way to go. Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States with a rich and storied heritage of African American contributions to the evolution of the city. The nearly 30 percent black population constitutes the South's largest. Yet Houston does not have a permanent African American museum. 26But if you listen hard enough, and keep your eyes open, you might hear the voices of the past, reflected in the art that you touch, walk on, walk past, and walk through, sometimes without ever noticing that you may be a part of the art yourself. A permanent museum would be a well deserved and needed amenity to Houston. Maybe it will be the next step that helps give voice to Houston's African American residents, artist.
- Bruce Jackson, ed., The Negro and his Folklore, (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1967), p. xvii.
- Henry D. Spalding, ed., Encyclopedia of Black Folklore and Humor (New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 1972), p.502.
- J. Mason Brewer, American Negro Folklore (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1968), p. 294.
- Ibid., p. 297.
- Ibid., p. 297.
- Ibid., p. 298.
- Ibid., p. 287.
- Dr. Garna Christian, "An Essay on Houston", University of Houston-Downtown Course Packet 12, p. 10, 1998.
- Lucy R. Lippard The Lure of the Local (New York: The New Press, 1997). A summary of the only chapter in this book dealing with art.
- Christian, p. 9. Houston slaves often had it better than rural slaves because of urban environment and demand for their artisan skills.
- Lippard, p. 262. The author's definition of place-specific art.
- The Art Park was commissioned by the Municipal Arts Commission in early 1991 to enrich the cultural image of the city and rejuvenate the urban environment.
- Houston Chronicle, July 19, 1992. The article discusses the inception and progression of the Art Park.
- Houston Chronicle, June 19, 1994.
- From an e-mail correspondence with Dr. Annette Lawrence, 1998.
- For contributions of other artist, see Houston Chronicle, October 13, 1996.
- Ibid., p. 1 of the Lifestyle section.
- For a summary of the Bayou Park Restoration and future plans, see Houston Chronicle, May 3, 1998, p. 8 in the Zest section.
- Henry Chase, "Juneteenth in Texas," American Visions, 12, no. 3 (1997): 44-50. A brief summary of the origins of Juneteenth, as well as events associated with the holiday.
- Alvia J. Wardlaw, The Art of John Biggers: View From the Upper Room, with essays by Edmund Gaither, Alison de Lima Greene, and Robert Thompson. Harry Abrams, Inc., in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Biographical information, from early childhood, through his schooling in Hampton, VA, to his move to Texas. This book is a collection of Biggers' works, with comments and essays from various authors.
- Houston Chronicle, February 16, 1997, p. 8 of Texas Magazine. Quote from an interview with the author.
- Mayo Angelou, The Art of John Biggers, p. 14-15. A summary of Mayo Angelou's assessment of Biggers' contribution to art.
- Observations by Robbie Cooper, while a student at the University of Houston-Downtown for the duration of the painting of the Salt Marsh.
- John Biggers, summarizing his view of art, from Houston Chronicle, February 16, 1997, p. 8 of Texas Magazine.
- Houston Chronicle, May 25, 1998, p. 36. Discusses the lack of a permanent African American museum, despite aggressive renovations throughout black neighborhoods.
- Angelou, Mayo, The Art of John Biggers, (Houston: Harry Abrams, Inc., in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. 1995)
- Brewer, J. Mason, American Negro Folklore (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1968).
- Chase, Henry, "Juneteenth in Texas," American Visions, 12, no. 3 (1997).
- Dr. Christian, Garna, "An Essay on Houston", University of Houston-Downtown Course Packet 12, 1998.
- Jackson, Bruce, ed., The Negro and his Folklore, (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1967).
- Lippard, Lucy R. , The Lure of the Local (New York: The New Press, 1997).
- Spalding, Henry D. , ed., Encyclopedia of Black Folklore and Humor (New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 1972).
- Wardlaw, Alvia J. , The Art of John Biggers: View From the Upper Room, with essays by Edmund Gaither, Alison de Lima Greene, and Robert Thompson. (Houston: Harry Abrams, Inc., in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1995).