With the recent attention shone on former President and racist (like many US President have been), I cannot help but think of a man who who named after him: John Woodrow Wilson.
I first saw John Wilson’s work while a student at Morehouse College studying African-American History. Naturally, I was drawn to Black Art. HBCUs are the best place to view black art. While black artists were shunned and derided by the white community, Black Colleges accepted and supported them. This is why so many HBCUs have great works by Black artists (like Hale Woodruff).
One of the schools with a great collection of black art is Clark Atlanta University. I recall walking into their art gallery one afternoon and seeing a painting of a black man in his US Naval uniform, his face down in arm folded arm on his desk as if he were weeping. His hand clinched an American flag. Mr. Wilson painted this image of his Brother who fought in the Second World War only to come home to same racism he left. His story is not unique, yet Mr. Wilson articulated this in a illustration. I will never forget seeing that image and how it rocked me. Instantly, John Woodrow Wilson became my favorite artist.
As time passed, I learned that many black artists like Wilson, and the late Elizabeth Catlett, left the United States for Mexican to study art. The colors and broad hands are indicative of 20th century Mexican artists.
I was most recently visited Atlanta May of 2014, and I made it a point to visit Clark Atlanta’s Art Gallery. I had to see this work again. To my disappoint, the gallery was installing a new exhibit. I never the painting.
Mr. Wilson’s work has never escaped me. I placed his work “Negro Woman,”as well as “Negro Man” by Henry Ossawa Tanner, in my film Sex Makes It More Important. (I bought a replica of Mr. Tanner’s “Negro Man” after living with three white guys and not seeing an black folks on the walls of our apartment. It was the best 3am purchase I have ever made. I even brought it with me to Korea. And that image of “Negro Woman” comes from a miss opportunity I had to see Mr. Wilson in person in 2006 or 2007 at Clark Atlanta. I was able to preserve the pamphlet from the event.)
The Cosby Show once featured an episode in which the Cosby’s bought Black Art. I hope to one day purchase an original work of John Woodrow Wilson. Hopefully, it’ll be the same work I saw as a student trying to understand my place as black man in this world.
I wrote this early Friday (11/27) morning – before NY Times published this: Black Artists and the March Into the Museum