A Giant, in Theory and Practice
Driskell Center Plans Year of Events to Honor Its Groundbreaking NamesakeBy Chris Carroll | Photo by John T. Consoli; painting courtesy of The David C. Driskell Estate
The human toll of COVID-19 on the University of Maryland community included a towering cultural figure who helped African American visual art to emerge from segregation and take its rightful place on the broader American canvas.
Art Professor Emeritus David C. Driskell died April 1 of complications from the virus at 88, and now UMD’s David C. Driskell Center for the Study of Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and African Diaspora is dedicating this academic year to commemorating its namesake’s life and work—combining teaching, art-history scholarship and writing, curation and the practice of art.
From the time Driskell painted his best-known work, “Behold Thy Son,” a 1956 meditation on the racist murder a year earlier of teenaged Emmett Till that takes the form of a pietà—a traditional depiction of Mary holding Jesus’ body—he stood against the conception of African American art as cut off from the mainstream.
“He was charged with a special task—go forth and promote African American artistic work in a way the world may not be ready for yet,” says Curlee R. Holton, the Driskell Center’s executive director.
Driskell arrived at Maryland in 1977, a year after his groundbreaking exhibition, “Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750-1950.” His own works are held by museums such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Gallery of Art and the Phillips Collection.
Opening online in September, “The David C. Driskell Papers” exhibition draws from more than 50,000 objects assembled since the 1950s and divided into galleries by decade: lecture notes, student dissertations, slides from exhibitions and most importantly, correspondence with other major artists.
Other events include a Sept. 17 symposium in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art, as well as a panel discussion on Driskell’s legacy. In Spring 2021, the center will present an exhibition focusing on the work of his students, many of whom went on to successful careers themselves.
“He was a trailblazer,” says acclaimed performance artist Jefferson Pinder ’93, MFA ’03, who studied with Driskell at Maryland. “So many people are indebted to the work he’s done.”
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