Q. Is it fair to speak about "black art"? And, if so, what is it?
A. I'm very careful about the word "black." It's more precise to say "African-American." And I'm very careful about the word "art." I don't use that word. I prefer to talk about "visual evidence." There are African people in America, and what we are producing is the visual evidence of our experience. It's like so-called jazz. I don't use the word jazz too much. It's audio evidence. Evidence should be as honest; and just and as truthful as it can be. It's like a trial; you present evidence to convict something or to free something or to examine something.
Q. Does that evidence have to be political?
A. Washington is a political town. It's the seat of government -- a government that, at this point, I would call a government of injustice, not justice. I'm from Los Angeles. All of a sudden I'm here. I know who I am. I'm sensitive to what's happening to me, and to people who look like me. That's who I'm around 90 percent of the time. I know I can't survive alone. And the only tools I have are those things we're calling art. I am an African in America who's been taught to be an American, but who has not been assimilated into America. I'm an outsider on one level. And an insider on another. I'm a college professor, I teach at a major university. I've been trained, I pay taxes. I do all the things Americans do, but I'm still not an American essentially.
Now with that contradiction, the act of trying to do something becomes political. If I want my child to go to a good school, that can be a political act. If I don't accept the school around the corner -- because; the teachers are lousy and they don't give a damn and there're drugs on the corner -- that's a politcal act. Art -- everything -- is politics in that sense.
Q. Tell me about Howard. It seems that the works being made there by your colleagues share so much that you might be forgoing a kind of "Howard School."
A. Right, right, right. I've been at Howard 13 or 14 years. When I first came, the art department at Howard had 14 teachers. Eleven of them were white. In 1967, the year I came, there were four new teachers hired. Three of them were white, I was the only black. Today there is only one white. So the complextion of the school has changed. And the consciousness has changed. At Howard we take the philosophical position that it is our duty, our responsibility, that is what is needed. We want to perpetuate our values. The 18 of us at Howard have a common experience. When we manifest that experience, a commonality appears. That's the "Howard School."
We feel -- and when I say "we," I'm speaking about Africans in America, at least those I know -- we feel we have to somehow minimize any frivolous activity. We have almost completely negated in our work, and in our lives, the whole concept of art for the sake of art. Our work is of people rather than for people. I think that's the essential difference between our work and that of Europeans, white people, you know, white art.
A.What about the white viewer? If your environment is special and different, if your responsibility is different, if your tradition is different, are there different standards that that a white person must bring to your art?
A. Yes. We hear about "black art." We never hear about "white art." White art is a given. Black art is something else. White people feel that if I'm doing something for African-American people, then I'm against them. I remember the '60s and how white people became threatened when black people tried to unite. They said, "that's racism in reverse," but it had nothing to do with that. Malcolm said that if we love each other that doesn't mean we hate white people, it means we love each other. In a white, person's mind, loving of a black person by another black person is hating white people . . .
Q. I don't know about hatred. When I see your sculpture, or much art made at Howard, I don't feel within it a hatred for my whitenes. But I do feel excluded. The work insists that it comes from an experience other than my own.
A. You have to bring another sense to it. When I go to see the "Directions" show at the Hirshhorn [no black artists are represented] I have to change my sense. I have to say this is outside me. Most Africans in America, when listening to the radio or looking at television or reading the newspaper, immediately acknowledge that it is exclusive. It is not for us. All right? Now, when a white person is asked to do the same, that white person feels confronted. It's the same for most black people. Black people will go to the East Building, and the stuff won't make sense to them. It is out of their experience. And they'll say, "Well, this is trash." What they mean is, "I don't understand it, therefore somethings's wrong with me."
Q. Not "I don't understand it, therefore something's wrong with it."
A. That's what a white person might say. But we've been taught to be inferior. We've been inferiorized. I never heard the name Picasso until I was 18 years old. White people, European people specifically, have developed a value system that is inculcated in all American education. The Africans in America are never taught that what we do has value. Jazz, the most fantastic audio evidence, is called jazz. A derogatory word. It's not called classical, or American music. It's jazz. Even our greatest achievements are put down . . . . Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie had to play in joints where drugs were being dealt. Stravinsky never had to do that. Horowitz -- can you imagine Horowitz playing a club in Georgetown? My father survived the depression by working as a janitor. I was ashamed of that for a long period of time, but now I understand what that meant.
Q. What about the market? There are black artists in Washington who sell very successfully in establishment galleries, in white galleries. They are not less black than you, their environment isn't different. The difference is they sell their art in galleries. You don't. Is that because your work is too political, too raw? You said of "Winter in America," the steel statues you exhibited at the WPA, that they would never sell. If you can't sell in the galleries, then how do you survive?
A. I'm scared to death. I'm right on the edge of being totally cynical. I'm a professor at Howard, I have a skill, but five years from now I might have to paint landscapes. Or fix bicycles.
Q. Look, it's hard to be an artist -- white or black. It's hard to get shows in galleries. Perhaps it's not surprising that so few whites buy your work. If you make art that is aimed at the black audience, what can you expect?
A. You're right. African-Americans -- because of white supremacy, essentially -- don't yet have the support systems. In this city there are many so-called African-American professionals making anywhere from $40,000 to $200,000 a year. Now these people -- because of what they've been taught -- would rather buy Pollock or Picasso or Al Held or somebody rather than Ed Love. They'll come to see a piece of mine and say, $2,000? Well, maybe it if cost $300. . ." Now, this is permane.There are more pictures of John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy in the homes of black people than there are of Malcolm X. We're not only talking about painting. I was in some very conscious peoples' home the other day and I saw Picasso prints, not originals, but copies of Picassos hanging on the walls. Something's been destroyed.
What our people, my people, are trying to say is we can trust each other. We can take the initiative. I'm willing, and a lot of cats that I know are willing, to dedicate our work to us, rather than to me. But until the market changes, I'm at the mercy of being a teacher at Howard . . . . I have to be my own dealer. First, I have to make it. Then I have to sell it. It would be very nice if somebody came and said, "I'll handle your work. You make it and I'll sell it, and we'll both survive." But that hasn't happened."
Q. What about Washington's museums? The Nigerian show at the Corcoran was a service to viewers black and white. "African Art in Motion" at the National Gallery of Art was not an exhibition without interest. You can't say that the museum industry totally ignores the art of Africa.
A. Museums are organisms that mantain and perpetuate the values that created them. Each time I went to see the Nigerian show at the Corcoran, 70 percent of the audience was white. The first show I ever saw on the African roots of Picasso and Modigliani was here at the Frederick Douglass museum, at Warren Robbins' place. But on the whole, the musuems don't even serve white people well. And they don't show you what is being done in Nigeria today.
Q. How has the integration of America since World War II changed African-American art?
A. For a while integration seemed a solution to our problems. We thought integration was synonymous with equal opportunity and human rights. But that got subverted somehow. In Howard's art department in the 1960s the enrollment was fantastic. We were turning them away. The best African-American students were fighting to get in. But now they enroll elsewhere. They feel the so-called white schools have more to offer them -- more money, larger studios, better facilities. And because those schools are inegrating, they need a quota of so many black students in each department. But the best white students aren't coming to Howard. That's destructive. It is going to have to change. Of necessity. When The Washington Post and The Washington Star start hiring black reporters and black editors, the Afro-American suffers. In that way integration is destructive. To assimilate yourself into something that doesn't want you, that's just absorbing you, is destructive. And the people most susceptible to this sort of destruction are the Africans in America.