Three good things about this year's Howard University faculty show: it includes the art of Ed Love, Skunder Boghossian and protean Alfred Smith; it allows us to experience that blending of contemporary Washington life and African tradition that has long been a characteristic of Howard's art; and it shows us, too, how much that art has changed.
Howard's art used to be militant. Once these exhibitions hymned the blood of martyrs, the victims of injustice and the raised clenched fist. But no longer.
Jeff Donaldson, of Howard and the group called Africobra, often painted guns. "Those days have passed," he says now.
The only objects shown that might strike one as political, audience-rousing, angry, are those made long ago. The exhibition opens with a touchingly optimistic lithograph by James Wells, dated 1940. It shows a "Negro worker" before a spotless factory. Nearby is a picture -- nearly as old-fashioned -- made by faculty chairman Winston Kennedy in 1973. It's a drawing with a text. "Black identity," it tells the viewer, "rests upon our . . . conscious struggle against oppression."
One feels little of that struggle in most objects here. Frank Smith's patterned paintings -- with their dancing brush strokes and African rhythms -- feel more like pieces of music than like manifestoes. Al Smith's "Water Spirit" is a piece for making music. It is an eight-stringed, eight-foot-long musical instrument, rather like a koto. The hovering pigeons and quickly brushed branches in his "Air Above D.C.," a city view of turreted town houses near 14th Street, are vaguely oriental, too. This painting holds no anger. Nor do the pictures of Malkia Roberts, which range from harbor views to portraits to complete abstractions. There is not very much passion or intensity in the present show.
Except in the art of Ed Love. Perhaps it is because his hands are so large, or because he has always worked with fire and steel. Whatever the reason, Love is incapable of passionless art. Here, unexpectedly, he is represented not by his usual shining chrome and stainless steel, but by paintings -- painted sculptures as well as paintings for the wall. His pictures -- mostly fire-red, scorch-black and silver -- have that disturbing boldness that one often senses in paintings made by sculptors. They look like acts of expiation soaked in smoke and blood. His steel "Wailers," a series of painted effigies, of odd decorated figures, made in homage to the late Bob Marley, are among the strongest objects in the show.
Also African in spirit -- but more subtle and more spry, more amusing and amused -- are Boghossian's patterned objects. His "Interchangeable Scrolls" (1985) is an object whose materials -- strips of bark, bits of skin, lengths of split bamboo -- suggest hunters' trophies, tribal rituals, neckties and work by Sam Gilliam.
"Interchangeable Scrolls" is an assemblage. "Untitled Scrolls" might be a painting of it. Here Boghossian depicts those strips of cloth and bark -- and guards them with a spirit cat hiding in the closet.
Howard has long succeeded in teaching its students how to mix African traditions and European techniques. In this mode, Akili Ron Anderson is now completing the installation of three handsome stained-glass windows, one 30-feet square, in the John Wesley AME Zion Church at 1612 14th St. NW.
The newest art at Howard stresses art, and art's techniques, more than it does the passions that not so very long ago galvanized that school and the black community. Despite Love's art, and Boghossian's, and an Oriental tai chi master portrayed by Al Smith, this year's faculty exhibit seems peculiarly decorative, eye-pleasing and passive. The show reflects the times