Black Arts at Oxy


Amy Lyford
Professor of Art History
Department of Art and Art History
Occidental College

Why Black Arts at Oxy, and Why Now?
My own departure from a pedagogical "norm" of tests-papers-research projects in which individual students are the units of measure, to one that is overtly collaborative and public-facing began with a serendipitous revelation:  the recognition of a history of art at Occidental about which I'd never heard a word, and with which I was confronted when I took students to see the "Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada" exhibition at LACMA in fall 2015. When I walked into the "archival room" at the LACMA exhibition (brava!), I looked into a vitrine filled with ephemera, and saw the exhibition announcement for a 1971 exhibition at Occidental entitled "Black Art: The Black Experience." I was dumbfounded! I eagerly encouraged my students to look at the announcement, and like me, they were surprised to learn about this aspect of Oxy's artistic legacy.

That experience at the 2015 Purifoy exhibition catalyzed this research, and the shift in my work as a Professor of Art History. The core of this project in many ways comes from wanting to know more about both Occidental's history - a history related to the curriculum and the experience of African American students - and the history of art in Los Angeles. In the wake of the Fall 2015 student occupation of the AGC Administration building by Oxy United for Black Liberation (OUBL), and the faculty's goal to develop a Black Studies program at the College, I wanted to actively remake my course "Modern and Contemporary Art" for Fall 2016 with our current context in mind - one that includes both OUBL and Black Lives Matter, as we consider our small community in relation to a broader national political movement. How to do this? And to what end?  The fact of Occidental's own work back in the Fall of 1971 to mount an exhibition such as "Black Art: The Black Experience" seemed an essential moment to return to, in order not only to understand the College's own history in Los Angeles, but to remind ourselves of the intersecting histories of Oxy AND Los Angeles in order to write our future.  And most essentially, to write a future in which we demonstrate a desire for collaboration and community - a future that our own past can teach us about!  In this powerful 1971 project, Occidental collaborated with the relatively young Brockman Gallery (founded in Leimert Park in 1967 by brothers Dale and Alonzo Davis), in ways that our current emphasis at the College on collaborative, community-based research have moved us as an academic institution outside of our "Oxy bubble" over the last 15 years. What our research about the "Black Art" exhibition reveals is that this kind of community-centered work is not new at Oxy; and what is more, it is my belief as a faculty member -- in this place, and at this time -- that our public-facing, community-based research must become THE central pedagogical and research agenda of our College.

This project thus represents a leap of faith for me, as the "Professor of Record," since I have dramatically altered one of the foundational courses within my discipline, and in the curriculum of the visual arts at Oxy. I changed it from a course that "delivers content," fulfills departmental major requirements, and prepares students for advanced work in art history and visual studies into a course that centered attention on the canon of Euro-American art history, and engaged students in group research to revise that canon themselves. I wanted to push my students to create, and present publicly, scholarship that advances our understanding of the history of African American art in Los Angeles, and at Occidental, but in ways that lay bare the gaps in the scholarly discourse about what constitutes "modern and contemporary art history." And I wanted to collaborate with a partner like Dale Brockman Davis, in order to make the history of African American artists, curators and community organizations in LA, like his Brockman Gallery, visible; and finally, to encourage and support my students to be knowledge creators in order to fill those scholarly gaps, and to present that work to the public through projects like this.

As of the writing of this introduction in December 2016, this project represents an emerging body of collaborative research and writing conducted by students in Art History 389, "Modern and Contemporary Art," during the Fall 2016 semester. This has truly been a collaborative effort, one that encompasses the thoughtful work, labor, and creativity of many people, including the students in the course, but also a range of collaborators from on and off campus: staff from the CDLA, Special Collections, and the College Archives; but also two important off-campus collaborators: Thomas Carroll, Visiting Artist and Researcher; and Dale Brockman Davis, one of the co-founders of the Brockman Gallery in Los Angeles. We are all aware of our predecessors in this work -- Dale and Alonzo Davis whose innovative, path-breaking Brockman Gallery made possible the exhibition at Occidental on Black Art in Fall 1971; a former Professor of Art History, Constance Perkins; and her student, Steve Smith (Class of 1971). And then there is our effort to honor the work of the five California-based artists whose work was included in the Occidental exhibition that autumn: David Bradford, David Hammons, Marie Johnson, John Outterbridge, and Noah Purifoy. The work wouldn't have been possible without the generous support of a Mellon Grant to promote undergraduate research in the arts and humanities. That grant has enabled my students and me to work with Aneesah Ettress, Post-Baccalaureate Fellow in the CDLA whose work is supported directly by the grant; and with a faculty learning community focused on integrating Undergraduate Research and Digital Humanities scholarship supported by CDLA staff members Chris Gilman, Jake Sargent, Darren Hall, and Ryan Brubacher. I also wish to thank the staff of Special Collections at Occidental for their support of this project: Dale Stieber, Anne Mar, and Helena Vilar de Lemos. Finally, thanks to the Keck Foundation for the support of this project, enabling me to bring Thomas Carroll into our work as a Visiting Artist and Researcher.

Thank you to all the students of Art History 389, Fall 2016: Emily Dwyer, Kellen Holt, Jennifer Keane, Jocelyn Lo, Sophia McGinty, Christina Sabin, Kailee Stovall, Vanessa Todd, Katherine Torrey, Leila Wang, Chloe Welmond, Allison Wendt.


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