Strolled over to Golden Gate Park after church Sunday on a gorgeous, sunny San Francisco day to scope the length of the lines for the King Tut exhibition at the DeYoung Museum. Didn’t expect to get anywhere near the place, just wanted to check it out the opening weekend. The lines were amazingly short, but I wasn’t with the person I wanted to attend with, so my attention turned to the outdoor exhibition between the DeYoung and the California Academy of Art.
Near the band shell, my eyes made contact with a wiry countenance in a straw hat who I surmised was the painter of this collection of abstract art. We spoke, I signed his guest book, and something made me turn back to him and introduce myself as author of the black tourist guide to San Francisco. He confirmed what I had learned from his literature, introducing himself as The Artist Hines. One of my best friends is an artist named TheArthur Wright, so the name didn’t strike me as unusual. Soon, he posed a question to me. “What makes something black art?” he queried. “And who is a black artist?”
For me, the answer was simple. He was African-American and an artist. That made him a black artist and his work black art.
The Artist Hines wasn’t having it.
We both recognized with our eyes that this was going to be a long conversation and moved to the nearby bench.
With identity and race at the forefront of American life in the wake of the death of Michael Jackson, we were both eager to tackle the subject. Given his right to define his own identity, I turned to his biography.
“The Artist Hines is a full time artist originally from New York City now living and painting in Sausalito, California. A figurative painter and surrealist for most of his life, in 2001 Hines’ work began to shift towards abstractionism as a means of fulfilling his need for ever greater artistic expression. Hines’ abstract paintings were heavily influenced by the New York school of Abstract Expressionists. It was through artists like Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell that he first began to understand the language of abstraction….My paintings are thus born of the symbiotic relation between myself, the paints and the canvas. Each stroke, splatter, drip or layer of paint applied is an act of intimate expression applied on canvas, expressing my personal feelings about love, passion, art and life.”
Clearly, he had put a lot of thought into it. And it appeared that he had successfully marketed his image to the art community. The biography noted that he is President of The Artists Guild of San Francisco, the organization which has been presenting outdoor exhibitions throughout the city since 1959, a very prestigious honor.
It made me think of Sargent Johnson, featured in Volume 2 of Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California, 1900-1950, as one of the top artists of the Harlem Renaissance. In San Francisco, Johnson was the winner of the San Francisco Art Association prize in the early 1920s and regional director of the Federal Arts Project during the Great Depression. That meant the bandshell to our side and most of the other significant public art in the city had been done under his supervision. Johnson’s own work includes the fresco on the front of the National Maritime Museum, the History of Athletics sculpture in the stadium of George Washington High School, Seven Animals in the Alice Griffith apartments in Bayview/Hunters Point and my favorite, a log sculpted as a man at the corner of Webster and Golden Gate which most people do not even realize is a sculpture, not to mention by one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.
Like Hines’ abstractions, there’s nothing outward from his art to indicate that Johnson was an African-American. Clearly, Johnson was well recognized for his talent, particularly during a time when it was extremely rare for African-Americans to occupy any supervisory positions in any government agencies.
I’d asked The Artist if he were familiar with the Sargent Johnson Gallery in the African-American Art and Culture Complex at Fulton and Webster. He was not. So I gave him the contact information for the visual arts coordinator there and the Bayview Opera House.
Our positions began to intertwine as we palavered over an hour. My position was that his style demonstrated the immense diversity of black art, not to be pigeon-holed into mere representational or social art. I referenced the current exhibit of Malik Seneferu at the Bayview Opera House in which he showed the entire body of his work, which ranged from Ernie Barnes style depictions of black life to equally abstract renderings. Parts of Seneferu’s show appeared to be from a completely different artist. But when I talked with him last Monday, he said it reflected different stages of his artistic life. And I briefly touched on the stature of Sargent Johnson who navigated the worlds of the Harmon Foundation exhibitions with fellow black artists like Aaron Douglas and his own San Francisco scene. Earlier in the week, I’d learned from the H-Net African-American history discussion network that Johnson had been a Pullman porter, an authentically African-American experience. Yet, Johnson had grown beyond the limitations of black life in the 1920s and 1930s to create art with a broad appeal.
Hines contended that he chose not to be limited to what is commonly considered “black art,” citing the evolution of Malcolm X from the separatism of the Nation of Islam to his trip to Mecca where he saw Muslims of all races as humans.
My response was that “black art” as a term need not be marginalizing, when one knows the true extent of the central role of Africans in history. I suggested that what Hines saw as self-segregation was instead self-ignorance posing as racial pride. Across the way from us was the shining example of my point. Is the exhibition of King Tut and the Egyptian art in the display black art? Of course, it is, just like the immense contributions of the Moors to art and music of the West. Forms like classical music and impressionist painting find roots in black life when one goes back far enough.
I suggested that the allegory of Queen Calafia, the black warrior queen who gave California its name, offered the paradox to reconcile the apparent contradiction of black identity. Out of the Moorish experience, black women were seen as exemplars of wealth, courage and beauty. Yet later in the 16th century, Bartolome de las Casas and other clerics chose to create the doctrines that led to the idea of race. When we view ourselves through the lens of race, we’re following their constricting construct instead of our common humanity. Whatever the origins, however, race is a pervasive fact of life for the past 500 years.
Even though we started from different directions, in my mind, we wind up in the same place. The goal that Sargent Johnson, The Artist Hines, Michael Jackson and anyone else aspires to is our common humanity. And that will eventually take one back to the DNA of one Lucy in east Africa. So, there’s no contradiction between universality and black art– just many, many routes to the same destination.