The viewer who explores "Our Commonwealth, Our Collections," the moving 90-object group show now at Howard University's College of Fine Arts, soon begins to feel that he has been exposed to a kind of cubist image of a century of struggle. The message here is splintered, the point of view keeps shifting. Yet all these varied objects -- whether viewed from left or right, from the heights or from the street -- combine to show the viewer what it's like to be an artist who is both American and black.
The Howard exhibition exploits an often ignored resource. All its paintings and its sculptures, its drawings and its prints come from the collections of traditionally black colleges and universities. More than 20 schools -- some as widely known as Fisk, Morgan State and Howard, some as unfamiliar as Le Moyne-Owens and Claflin -- have lent the works. No local art museum, and few elsewhere in America, could have drawn from their collections so rich a survey show.
These black artists hymn their blackness in many different ways. Archibald Motley, who is represented by a neon-colored scene of people hanging out on a Southern city's street, tends to sing with a sort of raucous laughter. His oil is called "Black Belt"; it comes from Hampton University. "Black Moses" by the late Charles White, also lent by Hampton, sounds a prideful anthem. Others artists howl. John Wilson's wash-on-paper from Atlanta University is titled "Black Despair."
Some of the best painters here pay race slight attention. Romare Bearden's undated "Interior" (from Fisk University) could be a depiction of anybody's living room. Some pay it none at all. Edward M. Bannister's pastorales of calmly grazing cows (from Tougaloo College) are pictures that suggest a hundred other French Barbizon School landscapes of a century ago. Almost without exception, the oldest works displayed suggest -- if only by their silence -- a kind of racial distancing, a striving for acceptance perhaps touched by shame.
In 1854, when Robert S. Duncanson completed his "Classical Landscape With Ruins," a fantasy of Europe, the few painters who were black were expected to ignore, at least in their pictures, the slavery and poverty endemic to their times. (The Duncanson is owned by Howard.) Few white 19th-century buyers wished to be reminded by the pictures on their walls of how they treated blacks. They gaze at grazing cows, or at images of piety, Henry O. Tanner's "Good Shepherd" for example (another work from Howard). The 19th-century pictures here soothe, they do not shock. They're gentle, they're refined.
Anger and politeness march together through this show. Lois Mailou Jones's "Ville d'Houdain," a sun-bright Haitian landscape from Atlanta University, is a well-made, gracious painting that in no way offends. But William H. Johnson's striking 1940 "Jitterbug" (from Hampton) seems to tell the viewer -- through the violence of its colors and the roughness of its style -- I don't care if you're alarmed by our music and dancing, I'm going to give it to you straight.
Though Johnson had been trained as an academic painter, he decided later to utterly reject his first European manner. Many of these painters were instructed by their teachers to ignore the plight of black Americans and the heritage of Africa. They were taught to look to Europe, to the masters of the Renaissance and to newer Parisian painters, and some did so very well. Albert Alexander Smith's "Furnace" (1930; another work from Hampton) seems to be a painting of coal shovelers at work, but its real theme is Michelangelesque muscularity. It cannot quite decide whether it is honoring harsh, back-breaking labor or the antique art of the museums. It is nonetheless among the finest paintings in the show.
Many of these artists -- Bearden, Tanner, Duncanson, Motley, Horace Pippin, Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, to name just a few -- are by now widely known. But Smith has been, in contrast, overlooked. The same is true of Linwood Morris, whose "Portrait of Alain Leroy Locke" (from Howard) is another admirable picture. Such painters deserve study. The chance to see their work is one service of this show.
How these artists struggled, and not just to make a living. Being black in white America, many also had to struggle with self-doubt and alienation before they could decide how and what to paint. And yet they painted nonetheless. A number of these artists, especially the younger ones, have turned away from Europe toward the heritage of Africa. Some have found their freedom in the license of abstraction. A refusal of despair, a sense of fighting through oppression, and a yearning for the liberty bestowed by making art are sensed throughout this show.
It was organized by Debra Spencer of New York and Barry Gaither of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, Boston. It will remain on view at Howard through Dec. 16.