The March 7 obituary of artist and educator Jeff Donaldson incorrectly listed his position with the Barnes Foundation. He was vice president. (Published 3/10/04)
Jeff Donaldson, 71, once head of the College of Fine Arts at Howard University and an artist who gave voice and vibrant visuals to the black nationalism aesthetic during the culturally and politically charged 1960s and 1970s, died of complications from prostate cancer Feb. 29 at Howard University Hospital.
Throughout his career, Dr. Donaldson brought political energy and an inventive approach to art created by African Americans during the decade when shouts of "Black is beautiful" and "Black power!" echoed across the country. In 1967, he was one of the creators of the "Wall of Respect," a montage of more than 50 African American heroes painted along a Southside Chicago building. The wall is credited with spawning an outdoor mural movement.
Dr. Donaldson also helped found the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, or Africobra. In 1968, the collective of nine African American artists, then based in Southside Chicago, wanted to create art that empowered the African American community. "Africobra was about letting people know we're here. And I'm talking about both black and white people, most of whom never saw black people in art," Donaldson said in a May 2000 interview with The Washington Post.
Unlike many of his predecessors whose work reflected Western influences, Dr. Donaldson and his contemporaries promoted art based on Africa and reflective of its music, rhythms and bright colors. He also emphasized art that carried a political agenda and social responsibility. Shades of Malcolm X, not Martin Luther King Jr., colored his paintings then.
An educator, art historian and art critic, Dr. Donaldson was a man with the steely voice of a political militant and an artist with the delicate touch for careful and intricate detail.
"Donaldson paints beautifully, rhythmically, melodiously," said Post art critic Paul Richard in a 1972 review. "Most of his compositions are rigidly symmetrical, but their rigidities are softened by the twinkling of his filigrees of colors. He works with little brushes and countless dots of subtle color; he uses gold and silver and hundreds of other hues."
Dr. Donaldson sought to develop a standard of excellence that transcended his work and the art produced by students under his tutelage at Howard and artists worldwide.
Murry DePillars, a member of Africobra and former dean of Virginia Commonwealth School of the Arts, said Dr. Donaldson's approach to visual arts was not simply a protest. "It was developmental," DePillars said. "He was stimulating growth and looking inside of the black culture to develop an art that was universal."
He said Dr. Donaldson looked at the aesthetics of the blues and jazz, as well as at literary, theater and dance aesthetics, "and Jeff raised questions about the visual arts aesthetics, and he felt many were transferable over to visual arts -- and Jeff set out to prove it, which he did."
Dr. Donaldson was born in Pine Bluff, Ark., where he developed his love for the arts. In 1954, he graduated from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, where he developed the school's first arts major. He received a master's of fine arts degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago in 1963 and a doctorate in African and African American art history from Northwestern University in 1974.
He came to Howard's College of Fine Arts as students were demanding teachers with an Afrocentric perspective. In 1970, he became chairman of the art department and director of the art gallery. A decade later, he became a professor in the department. He became the associate dean of the fine arts college in 1985, and from 1990 until he retired in 1998 was its dean.
Dr. Donaldson was also president of the Barnes Foundation, a Philadelphia-based art education center. Through his work as vice chairman of the Festival of Black and African Arts and Culture, representing the North American zone, Dr. Donaldson was instrumental in helping African American artists of all disciplines in the United States and elsewhere, said Akili Ron Anderson, a Washington painter. "He was responsible for getting people on the cutting edge in their aesthetics and their philosophy," Anderson said.
His marriage to Arnicia R. Beatty Donaldson ended in divorce.
Survivors include a daughter, Jameela K. Donaldson of Washington; a son from a previous relationship, Tarik Jeff Redd Donaldson of Silver Spring; and a sister, Vida Stewart of Chicago.