Morrison, Keith 1942–
Keith Morrison 1942–
Artist, art educator
Creating works of art that show he “was profoundly influenced by African and Caribbean cultures,” according to the Smithsonian, Keith Morrison has made his mark in the art world as a painter, printmaker, writer, and educator. He is especially known for his figurai paintings that depict a variety of motifs from his home country of Jamaica and the African continent, as well as for his extensive use of metaphors and symbols to illumine various themes. Morrison has also infused his work with influences from Judeo-Christian religions and his own childhood memories.
In his numerous writings, Morrison has asserted that art by African Americans must be assessed in the total cultural context, and cannot be thought of merely as art by blacks in the United States. As he wrote in African American Visual Aesthetics, “The search for a definition of African American art opens into the reality of pan-Africanism, a concept arising from the increasing diversity of people of African descent in the United States.”
Keith Morrison was born in Jamaica, and remained there until finishing high school. While growing up he heard many voodoo ceremonies, and his recollections of these rituals served as a wellspring for some of his later artworks. “As a child, Keith Morrison drew and painted constantly and dreamed of becoming an artist,” claimed Regenia A. Perry in Free Within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art. Morrison hoped to study art in Italy, but his family wanted him to be schooled in England. Morrison applied to a number of art schools in Great Britain and the United States, and his family finally agreed to let him come to the United States when he was 17 so that he could study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Morrison studied at the Institute between 1959 and 1965, focusing primarily on abstract expressionism. According to Perry, Morrison “was probably most influenced by the hard-edged abstract paintings of Ellsworth Kelly.” (Kelly achieved his artistic fame with paintings that featured wide, flat areas of intense color, and he was also a sculptor.) Morrison’s first paintings were vast, black-and-white abstractions that received much critical and popular praise. However, “they did not satisfy his inner longing to create paintings that more specifically reflected the rich and colorful culture of his homeland,” noted Perry.
After earning both his B.F.A. and M.F.A. degrees, Morrison began his professional career as an art teacher in the public schools of Gary, Indiana. In 1965 he became an art instructor at the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago. He began teaching at the college level at Fisk University in Nashville in 1967, as an associate professor of drawing. A year later he joined the faculty at DePaul University as an associate professor of print-making. Continuing to move up the academic ranks,
Taught art at Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago, IL, 1965-67; was assistant professor of drawing, Fisk University, Nashville, TN, 1967-68; served as art department chairman, DePaul University, Chicago, IL, 1969-71; was associate professor of printmaking and department chairman, College of Art and Architecture, University of Illinois, Chicago, 1971-79; was professor and chairman, art department, University of Maryland, College Park, 1979-92; has served as dean of creative art, San Francisco State University, 1994—
Selected exhibitions: Sheraton Hotel, Philadelphia, 1968; Institute of Chicago, 1968,1971 ; Smith-Mason Gallery, 1971; University of Iowa, 1971-72; 25th Illinois Invitational, 1972; Illinois Bell Telephone, 1972; Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1983; Brody’s Gallery, Washington, D.C., 1987, 1991; California Afro-American Museum, Los Angeles, 1989; Bronx Museum, 1990; Alternative Museum, New York City, 1990; Cavin-Morris Gallery, New York City, 1992.
Selected awards: Prize, Jamaica Institute, 1959; Bicentennial Award Painting, City of Chicago, 1976; International Painting Award, Organization of African Unity, Liberia, 1979; Danforth Association Award.
Addresses: Home—887 DeHaro Street, San Francisco, CA.
Morrison eventually became a full professor at the University of Maryland in 1979.
While his early paintings appeared to be standard abstract expressionist efforts, to Morrison they symbolized the efforts of African Americans during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. These paintings reflected the racial problems of the United States, as well as discrimination experienced by Morrison himself as he tried to build his career as an artist. In his writings about art, Morrison has stressed the importance of black unrest in the 1960s as an influence of today’s African American art. “A political agenda, created by some artists during the Civil Rights Movement, informs much of today’s art,” he wrote in African American Visual Aesthetics in 1995.
Morrison’s Banana Republic, a watercolor painted in 1989, provides an artistic history lesson about racial struggle and domination of the poor by the wealthy. In this painting, boxes, banana peels, and other garbage are strewn about “to symbolize the careless plundering, by First World corporations, of Third World countries,” according to Howard Risatti in Artforum. His 1990 oil/acrylic painting of the same name continued the theme, but added comic elements to imply childish behavior on the part of adults.
In the mid 1970s, Morrison veered away from abstract painting and focused on figurai paintings that revealed his interest in African and Caribbean themes. However, the effects of his training were still having their impact on his work as well. “I wrestle with ideological tensions between African and European values in my work as I do as a person,” Morrison said in Smithsonian. This duality is clearly displayed in his Zombie Jamboree. “The painting, in which three large animals are seated in front of a pond at dusk, was inspired by stories about voodoo ceremonies that Morrison heard as a child,” according to Smithsonian. “But the figure wearing white is based in part on Ophelia, the tragic heroine in Hamlet, while ghosts dancing across the water are a reference to Benjamin Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw. ” Morrison’s interest in the blending of cultures is further demonstrated in his large painting entitled Night in Tunisia, in which African sculptures are seen in conjunction with Western musical instruments.
Vanitas, a painting in a show of his work at Brody’s Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 1991, provides a clear example of Morrison’s Caribbean Afro-American cultural influences. It features a green parrot sitting on a red dressing table that is filled with jewelry and cosmetics. The parrot cavorts on top of an orange hand-mirror as it tries to impress a nearby pigeon.
Many of Morrison’s artworks have featured symbols of death and resurrection. This focus is based partly on Morrison’s memory of the drowning or possible suicide of a friend of his family, an event that had a major impact on the artist. His heightened awareness of social realism has also inspired much of Morrison’s work over the years. This consciousness was in particular evidence in the show at Brody’s Gallery. In Tombstones, referred to by Risatti as “an allegory of sorts about drug use,” Morrison depicts four men gyrating around an evil-looking person who is aiming a gun right at the viewer. Tenements around the figures are shaped like tombstones, and sneakers are strewn about in the front of the picture. The “tombstones” appear almost like teeth, suggesting “the gaping jaws of a monster,” according to Risatti. In his overall review of the show, Risatti noted that Morrison’s paintings were “timely because of their socially relevant themes, and instructive because of Morrison’s reluctance to sacrifice esthetic or philosophical substance in the service of overt polemics.”
In 1988 Morrison became chairman of the art department at the University of Maryland. He moved on from there to assume the position of dean of academic affairs at the San Francisco Art Institute, then took a position as dean of creative arts at San Francisco State University. Morrison has organized a number of important exhibitions during his career, including ones for the Washington Project for the Arts, the University of Chicago, and the Brandywine Workshop. He is the author of Art in Washington and Its Afro-American Presence: 1940-1970, a well-known exhibition catalogue, and has contributed entries to books of art history and art criticism to periodicals such as the New Art Examiner.
Art in Washington and Its Afro-American Presence: 1940-1970, Washington Project for the Arts, 1985.200 Years of Afro-American Women in Art: A Critic’s View, Illinois State University, 1980.
Cederholm, Theresa Dickason, editor,Afro-American Artists, Boston Public Library, 1973, p. 206.
Driskell, David C, editor, African American Visual Aesthetics: A Postmodernist View, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995, pp. 17-43.
Perry, Regenia A.,Free Within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art, Pomegranate, 1992, pp. 146-149.
Christian Science Monitor, November 20, 1985, p. 29.
School Library Journal, February 1995, p. 51
Smithsonian, November 1993, p. 148.
Washington Post, September 21, 1991, p. C2.
Additional information for this profile was obtained through a National Museum of American Art video,African American Artists: Affirmation Today (America Past and Present), Crystal Productions, 1994.
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