"Prints say more about history than any other medium," says Richard J. Powell, guest curator of "Impressions/Expressions: Black American Graphics," the 200-year survey of prints just opened at the Howard University Art Gallery. "And prints focus on personal concerns that paintings and sculpture get away from."
Powell, 26, is a printmaker-scholar who has been researching Afro-American prints since his gradutate-school days at Howard in 1976. His effort has resulted in the first survey of this work, and a major advance in the study of black art history. The 107 prints come to Washington after an initial showing at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Early examples are few. But because blacks traditionally were denied entrance into trade unions and schools, it is surprising that any managed to learn what was considered a commercial craft in the United States until the 20th century.
The very earliest known images -- a portrait of 18th-century black poet Phyllis Wheatley now attributed to Scipio Moorhead, and Patrick Reasons 1848 engraved portrait of Henry Bibb, a runaway slave and abolitionist -- are shown here only in reproduction, though the originals can be seen by crossing the campus to the Moorhead-Spingarn Research Center.
But a charming "Child with Dog" from 1837 attests to the work of New Orleans daguerreotypist and lithographer Jules Lion; and an 1871 printed map of Oakland, Calif., is evidence of Grafton Tyler Brown's thriving lithography business during the California gold rush.
For those who identify black protest movements with the 1960s, several prints from the '30s and '40s will come as a revelation. Under WPA and other federal arts projects of the time, graphics workshops were set up in several large cities: artists both black and white grabbed the opportunity, and printmaking began to flourish.
According to artists who survived those days -- among them Washington's own James Wells -- no racial distinctions were made in those workshops. A number of first-rate prints from this period are included here, and this section of the show could stand on its own.
Oppression, both economic and social, was a dominant theme during the Depression, and in these works a concern with black oppression emerges loud and clear. Dox Thrash dealt mildly with black rural life, but Howard graduate Elizabeth Catlett spoke more strongly in her acerbic linoleum cuts.
Catlett's "I Have Special Reservations," for example, depicts a woman seated on a bus behind a "colored only" sign, her face grim with pent-up rage.
Religious themes and the idea of a promised land are also much in evidence, notably in the work of Raymond Steth whose treatment of the poverty of urban and rural blacks has a sardonic edge. In "Heaven on a Mule," members of a farm family in a desolate landscape fall to their knees in prayer as an angel appears to them. It is based, Powell says, upon the tale, real or apocryphal, of a family who pinned on cloth wings and jumped off a cliff in the hope of reaching the promised land.
In "Evolution of Swing," Steth's apocalyptic vision produces a tableau of African slaves coming out of bondage to triumph in the apotheosis of jazz.
"Steth was one of the great discoveries of this show," says Powell, who found Steth's works in the storerooms of several museums, but could find no references to him in the literature on black art. During a visit to Philadelphia, Powell discovered that Steth, now in his 50s, still lives and works in Philadelphia as a graphics designer. He showed up for the opening last Sunday night, which turned out to be a reunion for several WPA artists, including Samuel Brown, who made striking abstracts in the '30s, and James Wells, who founded the Howard Print Department, and is also well represented in this show.
From the '40s, John Wilson's "Deliver Us From Evil" juxtaposes whites being oppressed by Hitler and American blacks. By the '60s, the scars are psychological. Concern with African origins and Afro-American history increases, alongside persistent portrayals of black anger and frustration. Noteworthy are Margaret Burroughs' "What Shall I Tell My Child Who Is Black," and Howard-trained Calvin Reid's 1978 lithograph "How to Spot a Graduate Psychopath."
Several Washington artists make strong statements, including former expatriate Mildred Thompson, Lou Stovall, Percy Martin and Winston Kennedy of the Howard faculty.
The show also includes the major talents of visual-musicmaker John E. Dowell Jr., and surreal fantasies by Margo Humphrey of California.
The range of print techniques is broad.
There are omissions: Curator Powell has gracefully left himself out, though he is surely a major emerging printmaker. But enough new artists and new information have been found here to provide PhD candidates with theses topics -- and dealers with merchandise -- for years.
Meanwhile, says Powell, "these prints will not only bring us into the world of Afro-American printmaking, but ultimately into an appreciation for the motivation to print, survive and thrive."
The show continues through March 28, and a catalogue is in the works. The Gallery is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.