The South has been the birthplace of leading African American artists, beyond number, from Romare Bearden, born in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Jack Whitten, born in Bessemer, Alabama, to Melvin Edwards, born in Houston, Texas. In addition, the South figures heavily and prominently in national narratives of African American art history, from the important contributions made by historically Black colleges and universities, such as Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee, or Clark Atlanta University, in Atlanta, Georgia, to the ways in which the South has figured as a compelling subject for numerous artists born outside the region, such as Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett. The South has also been an area of the country to which important African American artists have migrated or gravitated at one time or another. It is a measure of the unbounded significance of John Biggers that he features prominently in so many southern art historical narratives—as an artist born in the South (in Gastonia, North Carolina), as an artist for whom the South was a prominent subject matter, and as an artist who built a successful and influential career while maintaining a long-term presence, over many decades, in Houston. This last consideration is built on Biggers serving as the founding chairman of the art department at Texas Southern University in Houston from 1949 to 1983. In this regard, Biggers takes his place alongside other monumentally important artist-professors who played foundational roles in establishing art programs.
The decades of the mid-twentieth century were fertile for African American art teaching and university-centered exhibiting, as Cedric Dover notes in his 1960 book, American Negro Art:
In recent years, flourishing art departments have grown in many Negro colleges. Those built around John Biggers at Texas Southern University (Houston), James Parks at Lincoln University (Jefferson City, Missouri), Hayward Oubré at Alabama State College (Montgomery, Alabama), Ed Wilson at North Carolina College (Durham, N.C.), Harper Phillips at Grambling College (Grambling, Louisiana), Phillip Hampton at Savannah State College (Savannah, Georgia), John Howard at Arkansas A.M. and N. College (Pine Bluff, Arkansas), David Driskell at Talladega College (Talladega, Alabama), Ophelia Andrews at West Virginia State College (Institute, W. Virginia), and James Lewis at Morgan State College (Baltimore) are among many more that would raise this list to a directory.
When Biggers joined Texas Southern University in 1949, the institution had until recently been known as Texas State University for Negroes. In 2019, we might wince at such a name for a center of learning, but it is important to recall that at the time (indeed, for some years thereafter) the University of Texas at Austin barred Black students from admission and was very much a Jim Crow university. It was not until the US Supreme Court’s 1950 ban on segregation that the first Black graduate students were admitted. (In the Sweatt v. Painter and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents cases, the court struck down segregation of African American students in law and graduate schools.) Given that by 1950, the University of Texas at Austin had to be dragged, very much against its will, toward desegregation, the ways in which John Biggers and others kept faith with their respective Black-centered institutions of learning is understandable, admirable, and remarkable.
Dover had, perhaps, the measure of Biggers when he characterized his work as “gripping realism.” Two aspects of this gripping realism underscore the distinctiveness of Biggers’s art. First, Biggers kept faith with representational drawing as the dominant characteristic of his work during a period when such drawing was largely regarded as out of step with the modern times. At mid-twentieth century, it was the abstract expressionism of such artists as Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock that excited New York, a city rapidly establishing itself as the epicenter of the art world. Working against this trend, Biggers and other representational artists such as Charles White believed the drawn image to be the ideal vehicle for articulating and conveying dignified and masterful portrayals of their people.
It might seem to us today that problematic representations of people of color, as circulated in the media, exercise us with wearisome regularity. But in the midcentury United States, vile caricatures of African Americans as minstrels, buffoons, simpletons, and bestial sexual predators had been allowed to spread rampantly in American culture for the greater part of a century. Biggers and other African American artists undertook extraordinarily important work in creating dignified, beautiful, noble, and above all, human depictions of Black people that stood in marked, majestic, and exalted contrast to the debased and shameful lampooning and demonizing images of Black people much loved by white culture. It took artists of exceptional determination, commitment, and racial pride to mount a spirited challenge to the lingering effects of the proliferation of blackface. Biggers was such an artist.
The above extracts are from "John Biggers: Some Considerations", a chapter in Lise Ragbir and Cherise Smith (eds), Collecting Black Studies, Art Galleries at Black Studies. The University of Texas at Austin, Distributed by Tower Books, an Imprint of the University of Texas Press, 2020: 1-5