Donaldson, Jeff 1932–2004
Jeff Donaldson 1932–2004
Artist and educator
A leader of the movement to create an African-American art based on black cultural experience, Jeff Donaldson imbued his work with racial consciousness and political commitment. Through his paintings and in his teaching, he communicated the rhythms of jazz, struggle, color, and “shine” that defined, for him, the vibrancy and resiliency of the African-American spirit. As Shola Adenekan explained in a Guardian obituary of the artist, Donaldson “celebrated the roots of black culture during an era when ‘black is beautiful’ and ‘black power’ were echoing through the African diaspora.”
Jeff Richardson Donaldson was born and raised in Pine Bluffs, Arkansas. At the age of three, he loved to watch his older brother draw; soon he was drawing his own cartoons and comic books. As a studio art major at the University of Arkansas, he studied with John Howard, who had been a student of Harlem Renaissance painter Hale Woodruff. Howard helped to nurture Donaldson’s growing interest in Afrocentric art, which Donaldson expanded through travel in Africa and study of African art history. Donaldson earned a master’s degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology, and later earned a Ph.D. in African and African American art history from Northwestern University.
Donaldson came of age at a time of rapid social change, as African Americans demanded both civil rights and respect for a black culture that refused to compromise itself to mainstream white values. Soon after beginning his academic career, he became involved in the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC). Through its visual art workshop, which Donaldson organized, its member artists created the “Wall of Respect” in Chicago. This mural, which 12 artists painted on an abandoned brick corner building in 1967, depicted more than 50 individuals who personified black pride, including Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali. Washington Post critic Paul Richard later described the wall as a “black-is-beautiful piece, a rough guerrilla mural, part hall of fame, part billboard, pridefully depicting black figures who took pride in being black.” Pointedly omitting the image of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose integrationist message was at odds with OBAC’s more militant approach, the mural emphasized art that, in Richard’s words, “would be vigorous and colorful and African at root. And purposefully political. Dazzling and new, it would shine out like a flower on the African family tree.” The Wall of Respect, which was destroyed after it was damaged by fire in 1971, became an icon of the black pride movement. It is credited with spawning an urban mural movement throughout the country in the 1970s which included Detroit’s “Wall of Dignity.”
Known for his militancy, Donaldson admired the revolutionary message of such leaders as Malcolm X. According to Adenekan, Donaldson argued that African Americans’ social gains after the 1960s came “more as the consequence of the threat of revolution than by all the praying by Martin Luther King.” Indeed,
At a Glance…
Born on December 15, 1932, in Pine Bluff, AR; died on February 20, 2004, of prostate cancer; divorced; two children. Education: University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff, BA, studio art, 1954; Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology, MS, art education and administration, 1963; Northwestern University, PhD, art history, 1974.
Career: Lamer High School, Jackson, Mississippi, art instructor, 1954-55, Chicago Public Schools, art instructor, 1957-59; Marshall High School, Chicago, art department chair, 1959-65; Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago, assistant professor, 1965-68; Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, visiting professor, 1968-70; Gallery of Art, director, 1970-76; Department of Art, Howard University, Washington, DC, chair, 1970-76; World Black and African Festival of Art and Culture, Lagos, Nigeria, director, 1975-80; Jazz America Marketing Corporation, Washington, DC, art director, 1978-82; Department of Art, Howard University, Washington, DC, professor, 1980-85; Howard University, Washington, DC, associate dean, 1985-90; College of Fine Arts, Howard University, dean, 1990-2004.
Selected awards: University without Walls, Distinguished Service Award, 1971; National Conference of Artists, Catlett Award of Excellence, 1977; Midwest Theatre Alliance, Bryant Recognition Award, 1984; University of Arkansas, Outstanding Arkansans Award, 1985; African Heritage Studies Association, African American Leadership Award, 1985; Mt. Sinai Hospital Medical Center, Spirit of Sinai Award, 1994.
Donaldson’s outspokenness caught the attention of filmmaker Haskell Wexler, who cast the young artist as a black radical in his film Medium Cool (1968), set during the protests at the 1968 Democratic national convention in Chicago. It also attracted less favorable notice; the artist claimed that he received an anonymous death threat because of his role in creating the Wall, and that the FBI had placed him and the Wall’s other artists under surveillance.
In 1968 Donaldson co-founded the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, known as AfriCobra. In the commune’s 1970 manifesto, published just after the painter arrived at Howard University to chair its department of art, Donaldson wrote that the group’s objectives were to develop a new African American aesthetic and to emphasize artists’ role in effecting social change through community engagement and development of black pride. Indeed, Richard credited the artist with “demanding [the] existence” of this new African American art. “You should have seen him,” wrote Richard. “He was warrior-erect…dashiki-clad, commanding and sternly on a mission.” Donaldson’s art, as AfriCobra member Murry DePillars told Washington Post writer Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb, was not simply a protest. “It was developmental. He was stimulating growth and looking inside of the black culture to develop an art that was universal.”
AfriCobra attracted considerable critical notice. When its AfriCobra show opened in Washington, D.C. in 1972, Richard hailed it as a “knockout” with bold, vibrant, sometimes militant pieces that looked to African themes and aesthetics rather than European models. As Donaldson explained to Richard, AfriCobra’s qualities included “The expressive awesomeness that one experiences in African Art…the Holiness church…the demon that is the blues, Jabbar’s dunk and Sayer’s cut, the Hip walk and the Together talk.” AfriCobra’s art celebrated “Shine…the rich luster of a just-washed ‘fro, of spit-shined shoes” and “Superreal color for Superreal images… Coolade colors for coolade images for the Superreal people.”
Donaldson’s own paintings deal directly with themes of race, political awareness, and cultural pride. In one of his early works, “Aunt Jemima and the Pillsbury Doughboy” (1963), he shows a violent confrontation between a black woman and a white policeman. The woman, dressed as a domestic servant and wearing a headscarf, looks nothing like the docile black “mammy” who smiled out at consumers from boxes of pancake mix; by conveying the woman’s strength and dignity, Donaldson subverts the racist image of “Aunt Jemima.” Similarly, Donaldson’s Pillsbury Doughboy is not a jolly piece of anthropomorphic biscuit dough but an oppressing figure, with stick raised to subdue the unarmed woman. As Brandi Hughes explained in her on-line study Perceptions of Black: African American Visual Art and The Black Arts Movement, the painting conveys the artist’s belief that African Americans would have to engage in direct confrontation to win their rights, and that, like the Jemima in the painting, they would not concede defeat.
Similarly political, Donaldson’s “Victory in the Valley of Eshu” (1971) was inspired by the story of an elderly couple who refused to sell their home to make way for a highway. A contributor to St. James Guide to Black Artists noted that “several layers of meaning are ascribed to the painting through the use of symbols and designs borrowed from African visual references, such as the six-pointed stars framing the photograph [of the couple], which symbolize the sign of If a in the Yoruba divination system.” The woman also wears an ankh, the ancient Egyptian symbol of life, and the man wears suspenders that are colored red, green, and black—the colors of the African liberation movement. Though humble, these figures are painted with consummate dignity; in Richard’s view, they are portrayed as “gods.”
In other paintings, Donaldson uses a more strikingly geometric and jazz-influenced style. Among the best-known is “Jam Packed and Jelly Tight” (1988), which was painted as an homage to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a Chicago-based jazz group. This painting, according to St. James Guide to Black Artists, “transcends the direct adaptation of specific African symbolism seen in the earlier work by creating colorfully rich visual patterns that convey a jazzlike rhythm, a visual ‘syncopation.’” Though organized symmetrically, the painting conveys the improvisational structure of jazz. Its myriad brilliantly-colored shapes suggest forms that slap bass strings, play piano keys, or hold microphones; faces sing. As Richard put it, “Donaldson’s geometry…is that of the star-burst, the halo and the shivering brass cymbal. His subject is jazz. Immersed, almost dissolved, in his ruled-out parallels and radial expansions are the performers of AACM.”
Donaldson came to use the term “TransAfrican” to describe the forms of expression that grew out of independence movements in Africa and the Caribbean and out of the Black Power movement in the United States. These art forms drew inspiration from African symbols and images, including kente cloth, masks, and cowrie shells, and from African music and dance. Yet this new art was informed by current ideas and images of contemporary concern. As Donaldson explained in an article by Richard, “African art—the art of Dogon masks, Kasai axes, Akan goldweights—is not art of isolated objects. Everything’s together, religion and tradition, oration, dancing, song. James Brown doesn’t just stand up there and sing. You can’t see Africobra unless you’re in the struggle, unless you hear the music, unless you really know.” Working with art movements in many parts of Africa during the 1970s, Donaldson served as vice-president of the international committee and chair of the USA-Canada zone of the Festac festival. He was also director of the World Black and African Festival of Art and Culture in Lagos, Nigeria, from 1975 to 1980. Through these activities, as Washington painter Akili Ron Anderson observed to Lamb, Donaldson “was responsible for getting people on the cutting edge in their aesthetics and their philosophy.”
In addition to his work as teacher and as head of Howard University’s art museum, Donaldson served as president of the Barnes Foundation, an art education organization based in Philadelphia. His work is included in several major collections, including the Afro-American Art and Culture Museum in Philadelphia, Cornell University, ETACA Foundation, Howard University, Schomburg Center in New York City, and Studio Museum in Harlem, New York.
Afro-American Art and Culture Museum, Philadelphia.
Arizona State University, Tempe.
Atlanta University, Georgia.
Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.
ETACA Foundation, Chicago.
Fisk University, Nashville.
Howard University, Washington, DC.
National African American Museum, Wilberforce, Ohio.
National Center of Afro-American Artists, Boston.
Schomburg Center, New York.
Southside Art Center, Chicago.
Studio Museum in Harlem, New York.
University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff.
Selected group exhibitions
Afro-American Museum, Wilberforce, Ohio.
Corcoran Museum, Washington, DC.
Howard University, Washington, DC.
Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Palermo, Italy.
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
Parish Gallery, Washington, DC.
Southside Art Center, Chicago.
Steinbaum Gallery, New York, NY.
St. James Guide to Black Artists, Gale, 1997.
Guardian, March 13, 2004.
Jet, March 22, 2004.
Washington Post, February 27, 1972; May 20, 2000; March 7, 2004.
“The Wall of Respect on the Web,” Block Museum, www.blockmuseum.northwestern.edu/wallofrespect/main.htm (May 7, 2004).
“Perceptions of Black: African American Visual Art & The Black Arts Movement,” http://xroads.virginia.edu/~UG01/hughes/blackart.html (May 7, 2004).
“Transatlantic Dialogue: Contemporary Art in and out of Africa,” Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, www.nmafa.si.edu/exhibits/dialogue/donald.htm (May 5, 2004).
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