Duke University Alumni Magazine


Provocative art: the 1989 installation of David Hammons' "How Ya Like Me Now?"
Photo: Philip Brookman

little more than eight years ago--before he became a professor at Duke and gained international recognition for groundbreaking scholarship in the field of African-American art history--Richard Powell experienced a defining moment in his understanding of visual art and its relationship to the people who view it. It didn't happen in a classroom or a library, nor did it take place in a gallery or an art museum. It happened on the streets of Washington, D.C. Powell was working as director of programs at the Washington Project for the Arts (WPA), a nationally prominent nonprofit "alternative space" for the exhibition of cutting-edge contemporary art. And it took the form of a tense public confrontation, rather than a quiet, private epiphany.

New York artist David Hammons, known for his often ironic treatments of themes relating to African-American life and culture, had created under the WPA's auspices a special site-work to be installed on Seventh Street so that it could be seen from the nearby National Portrait Gallery. Hammons' piece was a billboard-scale, metal, cutout portrait of the Reverend Jesse Jackson with his hair and skin conspicuously lightened. Below it in large boldface type was the title of a then-current popular song by rapper Kool Mo Dee: "How Ya Like Me Now?" The piece was intended as a commentary on the absence of images portraying prominent African Americans in the National Portrait Gallery. Its implication was that if Jesse Jackson were white, perhaps the gallery might accommodate a portrait of him among the other prominent figures represented there. Powell was installing the piece with a group of fellow WPA staffers when the trouble started.

"There was a bus stop near where we were installing the piece," Powell recalls, "and all day the people who had been gathering there had been asking us about what we were doing. But at some point late in the day, we encountered some hotheads, who saw that the other people working with me were white. They were totally uninformed about the

context of the piece, and they apparently thought it was 'signifying' about Jesse Jackson, so they got agitated. They decided we were imposing ourselves, our values, and our images on the public domain, and they didn't want to see it. So a riot broke out, and these roughhouse types knocked the piece off the platform it was mounted on. Fortunately, no one was hurt, and the piece wasn't destroyed or significantly damaged. We were able to bring it back into the WPA gallery, and we installed it there."

What Powell learned from this explosive incident was that sometimes the public requires a little background information to help them process contemporary public artworks. If he had it to do over, he says, "We would have installed the piece at night, when no one was around. And before doing that, we would have first put up a label explaining that the artist was African American and what his intentions were."

Powell: "I can't think of a moment in my life when art hasn't played a role in it"
Photo: Jim Wallace

The riot over the whiteface Jesse Jackson portrait was probably the most harrowing episode in that front-lines phase of Powell's ongoing engagement with the art of his own time and of historical periods. Unlike those angry citizens who attacked Hammons' site-work, Powell has always maintained an open, receptive attitude toward visual art and a keen interest in the motivations and sensibilities of artists. He began his education in the field long before his years in college and graduate school, when he was a child growing up in Chicago during the late Fifties and the socially turbulent Sixties. He says he has always had a strong fascination for visual culture. "I can't think of a moment in my life when art hasn't played a role in it. My earliest childhood memories involve drawing with crayons on manila paper and watching my father sharpen pencils with a kitchen knife."

Powell's late father, Louis C. Powell, was a waiter at the famous Palmer House hotel, and his mother, Eliza Hughes Powell, was (and still is) an elementary-school teacher. Powell says both parents encouraged and accommodated his interest in art, just as they did his older brother Michael's passion for music. The family lived on Chicago's South Side, as Powell says, "just a stone's throw from the University of Chicago and Hyde Park. It was a liberal, progressive, and fairly affluent community."

The public elementary school and Roman Catholic high school Powell attended didn't offer art classes, so he worked on his own to develop the artistic talent he demonstrated early in life. "I could always draw, and I was very young when I started painting," he recalls. "Before I went to college, I just did it all on my own. And my father responded to my desire to know more about art by taking me to museums. Every Sunday he would take me to a different museum. One Sunday it would be the Oriental Institute, and the next it would be the Museum of Science and Industry, or the Art Institute of Chicago. I remember when he took me to one of the big Picasso retrospectives at the Art Institute in the early Sixties, and I went home and began trying to paint cubistically. I was probably twelve or thirteen."

While developing his art-making skills and learning to appreciate a wide range of art traditions, Powell says he was "interested in other things besides art. I've always liked to read, and I've always written." He credits Jack Skillman, "a very good family friend who worked for the City of Chicago," as an important early influence on his reading. "He had an amazing library of books on African and African-American culture and history, and my brother and I would look through his books and talk about them." Powell's first exposure to African art was through books such as those in Skillman's library, and later he saw examples of it firsthand in Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History.

As for contemporary art, he says, "My exposure was limited to what was available in Chicago. So during my adolescence, I knew about artists like [sculptor] Richard Hunt and [painter] Jeff Donaldson. Donaldson did a kind of send-up book of satirical portraits called The Civil Rights Yearbook that we had at our house during those years." Donaldson was also a founding member of the ambitious and influential Chicago-based, black artists' collective, AFRI-COBRA, which sought to create a contemporary "atavistic" style incorporating the essential components of traditional African art.

Powell's self-educational impulse was fed by a variety of other sources and experiences. He shared his brother's love of music. He mentions in particular the impact that jazz artists such as Miles Davis and Alice Coltrane had on him during his youth, but he insists he lacked the instrumental talent his brother displayed on the guitar. He also remembers being "mesmerized by public television" in his teen years. It was an era when Chicago's public TV station, WTTW, regularly aired black cultural programs such as Soul--a variety show that featured prominent writers and musical artists, including Nikki Giovanni, James Baldwin, and Al Green--and Black, Blues, Black!, which introduced Powell to writer Maya Angelou.

"To a certain extent," he says, "I'm a product of a particular moment of heightened black consciousness in this country. I grew up at a time when 'Black is beautiful' was a clarion call and there was a growing appreciation

for the contributions that people of African descent had made to world culture."

"But," he's quick to add, "I was fortunate enough early in my life to get exposed to a whole range of experiences that allowed me to explore the African-American experience without forgetting that there are other cultural expressions." As one memorable example, he mentions attending events connected with anti-Vietnam War protests outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago during the socially contentious summer of 1968. At one such event on the University of Chicago campus, the fifteen-year-old Powell was excited to meet French existentialist writer Jean Genet and "Yippie" political activist Abbie Hoffman.

"The world is a big place," says Powell, "and culture is not as simple as black and white. Information, art, and ideas have no reins on them. They get out there and people pick them up as they will. So I'm interested in the interplay of white and black cultures."

His interest in this cultural interplay was encouraged by Gloria Wade Gales, a teacher of English at Atlanta's Morehouse College, where he did his undergraduate work in the early 1970s. "Her response to the black nationalist position was something to the effect of, 'Don't hold your cultural legacy so tightly that you choke it, because it needs to be allowed to live and function on its own terms.' What she meant is that black culture can stand up to other world cultures, and we shouldn't be so uptight about it that we want to isolate it or set it aside as some 'other' category."

At Morehouse, Powell majored in art and made English his minor. "At the time, I had the intention of being a practicing artist or teaching art. The idea of teaching art history didn't occur to me until a few years later."

Before he began seriously to pursue that idea, he graduated from Morehouse and spent two years pursuing a master's in fine arts in printmaking from Howard University in Washington, D.C. Then he went on to Yale University, where he earned, over the next ten years, two master's degrees (in Afro-American studies and art history) and a Ph.D. in art history. During that same ten-year stretch, he was an instructor, adjunct professor, or visiting scholar at such institutions as Norfolk State University, the University of Hartford, Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and Middlebury College. From 1985 until 1987, while working on his Ph.D., he was a pre-doctoral fellow at the National Museum of American Art, the visual-arts component of the Smithsonian Institution. He remained in Washington for two more years to work as director of programs for the WPA.

The street confrontation that accompanied the attempt by him and his co-workers to install David Hammons' bleached Jesse Jackson portrait occurred during his last few weeks on the job at that alternative art space. It was November l989, and Powell had commissioned the controversial site-work as part of his ambitious curatorial project, The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism. This exhibition of works by eighty-three artists made its debut that fall at the WPA before traveling to museums and galleries in four other cities across the country, including the Duke University Museum of Art. In addition to organizing the show, he wrote the 104-page catalogue that accompanied it. The flap over the Hammons piece happened to coincide with other controversies involving the content of contemporary artworks exhibited by nonprofit art spaces supported in part with public funds--an issue that continues to be hotly debated in the public arena.

Late in that same year, Powell re-entered academic life when he was hired as an assistant professor in the department of art and art history at Duke. By 1992 he had been promoted to associate professor. In 1996 he was named chair of the department, and in the last academic year was named a full professor. Since his arrival in Durham, he has emerged as "the hottest property in African-American art history in the country today," according to Duke professor emeritus John Hope Franklin, himself a leading scholar of African-American history.

Powell's growing reputation in his field has resulted largely from the books and exhibition catalogues he has written. In 1991, two years after he came to Duke, his Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson was published by Rizzoli International Publications in conjunction with a traveling exhibit of work by this long-neglected black artist. Powell organized the show for the National Museum of American Art, where it opened to widespread attention before going on to New York's Whitney Museum of American Art and smaller museums in Andover, Massachusetts; Greenville, South Carolina; and Fort Worth, Texas. The book and exhibit were initially inspired by Powell's research for the doctoral dissertation he wrote on Johnson, who was almost seventy when he died in obscurity in 1970.

In 1992, Rizzoli published Powell's Jacob Lawrence, a monograph on a more widely known modern African-American artist. And last year the University of California published his Rhapsodies in Black: The Art of the Harlem Renaissance, the catalogue for his most recently completed curatorial project, an exhibition that opened at the Hayward Gallery in London and is now traveling to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (July 26-October 19), and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (November 22-February 14, 1999). His latest effort as a curator is an exhibition and its accompanying catalogue, To Conserve a Legacy: American Art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, a joint project of the Studio Museum of Harlem and the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts. Scheduled to open next year, the exhibit will draw on the art collections of six higher-education institutions, all located in the southern United States.

But Powell's most ambitious and comprehensive scholarly work to date is his book Black Art and Culture in the Twentieth Century, published last year by Thames and Hudson. This extensively illustrated volume surveys works by several hundred artists in order to examine, in his words, "the thematic implications of black culture in twentieth-century artistic production." He begins his rich art-historical overview with a discussion of "the problematic nature of blackness" as a cultural category and the provocative assertion, "twentieth-century black subjectivity is, first and foremost, a choice that, while frequently influenced by the artist's personal identity, is not solely dependent upon it." Following up on his enduring interest in "the interplay of black and white cultures," the book looks not only at works by artists of African descent (among them Romare Bearden, John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Lois Mailou Jones, Kerry James Marshall, Adrian Piper, Carrie Mae Weems, and Hale Woodruff), but also at works that treat themes related to blackness even though the artists who made them (including Sue Coe, Miguel Covarrubias, Walker Evans, Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, Larry Rivers, and Andy Warhol) aren't black. Although dominated by discussion of artists from this country, Powell's wide-ranging survey also deals with artists from Africa, Europe, the Caribbean region, and Latin America.

Roughly the last quarter of Black Art and Culture in the Twentieth Century deals with the art of the past two decades and black culture's relationship to postmodernism. Powell points out that many artists of this era have adopted a critical, conceptual approach in their work, which emerges through their use of methods such as "analyzing socially rooted emblems, questioning traditional concepts of identity, utilizing testimony and scripted narrative, and, in general, dealing with culture and history as artistic currency." In discussing such artists, he notes that many of them "turned to personal or political events for source material," creating text and narrative-driven works distinguished by their "acknowledgment of the pliancy and unreliability of texts" and their shared view of culture as "fleeting, narrative-generated, politically contentious, and impervious to single definitions or reductive categories...." Summarizing his view of postmodernism's relationship to the book's central topic, he asserts, "The role of black culture in this period of ruin and reconfiguration has been to divest art of its current despair and create in its place a new optimism, an alternative world view, and an unparalleled critical stance."

The latter idea was on his mind last fall when he was teaching a class at Duke on twentieth-century American art. He was inspired to give one of the class' final sessions the same title David Hammons appropriated from Kool Mo Dee for that controversial Jesse Jackson portrait the angry mob forcibly dismantled on a Washington, D.C., street. The "How Ya Like Me Now?" session was devoted to postmodernism, and Powell had chosen to illustrate his lecture for the occasion with color slides of works by Hans Haacke, Jenny Holzer, Jasper Johns, Edward Kienholz, Jeff Koons, Joseph Kosuth, Barbara Kruger, Maya Lin, James Luna, Robert Mapplethorpe, Adrian Piper, Robert Rauschenberg, Cindy Sherman, and Lorna Simpson, before concluding with a slide of the Hammons piece. He wanted to use these works to illustrate a number of points about the emergence of postmodernism and the characteristics of the postmodern stance toward art and the world. It was an ambitious agenda for an hour-long class. He worked hard to fit it all in, moving along so rapidly that at one point an overwhelmed student interrupted him to blurt out, "Too much! Too much! Don't rush!" But in the end Powell ran out of time before he could go through his entire slide selection, so he didn't get around to showing the image of Hammons' monumental cutout portrait.

After the class session was over, Powell said he had intended to show the Hammons piece because "I wanted to play with the idea of postmodernism as a kind of moment of provocation--artistically, intellectually, and conceptually. The title is perfect for that purpose. Kool Mo Dee's 'How Ya Like Me Now?' is a call-and-response rap about provocation, and in that sense it's the same kind of statement that's being made by Hammons and all of those other artists I discussed in the class. Rapping is about talking and testifying about people's experience and the conditions they're living under, and that particular song is also a statement of bravado. Kool Mo Dee is saying, 'I'm amazing and I'm extraordinary.' It's rhetorical; it's not meant to be answered. It's about confidence in oneself in the world."

The rapper's words precisely reflect the "new optimism" and "alternative world view" Powell mentions in discussing black culture's contribution to postmodernism in Black Art and Culture in the Twentieth Century. And he himself displays something of that same confidence in discussing his ability to make such connections and move easily from a focus on black culture to an examination of other strains in historical and contemporary art. "I've always been able to cross borders and understand the world at large," he says.

Looking back on the late Eighties, when he was director of programs for the WPA, and comparing the work he did then to his present job at Duke, Powell says he sees no fundamental difference between the two positions. In both cases, as well as in his scholarly writings, he says, "It's all about educating people to be visually literate and turning them on to visual culture. I want people to buy into the idea that artists are important members of our society, and we need to look closely and carefully at what they do."

Brown is a freelance writer and photographer based in Orlando, Florida.

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