Tyler Professor Included in Historic Collection of African-American Art
One of Tyler’s faculty has been included in one of the newest collections of artwork, an incredible honor that speaks to his skill and finesse as an artist. Keith Morrison is a man of many talents with a history as interesting as his artwork. His recent inclusion in the Driskoll Center of the newly constructed African American Art Museum in Washington DC is nothing short of inspiring. Morrison describes his practice as that of a “A storyteller. A painter of poetic myths. An artist who uses the past as metaphor for the present.”
Morrison hails from Jamaica, and came to the US when he was seventeen in order to begin his career as an artist. Though he is considered by some a Caribbean artist and by others an American artist, he remains impartial to either label. He represented Jamaica in the 1994 Caribbean Biennale and the 2001 Venice Biennale, and represented the US as an Art critic to the 2008 Shanghai Biennale. He was the Dean of Tyler, and before that Dean at San Francisco State, San Francisco Art Institute and Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at the University of Maryland. Morrison has taught and lectured in universities across the US and in several countries. He has curated about 15 art exhibitions nationally and internationally, and published more than 50 articles on art.
The inclusion of his work in the collection is a high honor, and I was gifted the opportunity to sit with him and have a conversation about his history as an artist and his body of work. Morrison was glad to answer my questions as we sat together in his office.
“I believe I started making art when I was six or seven, though it could have been sooner than that.” He had a comfortable demeanor that matched his office in atmosphere.
You said that the most important part of making art to you is “Just painting.” Do you mean the act? Or something else?
“Conceptualizing an idea, and then making the painting. My paintings originate in two ways, the first is by being both an immigrant and being an expatriate. American artists have written about things from abroad, and you have a different experience from abroad than when you live there. Hemingway wrote on America while in Paris. After I came to the US I talked about the past, which segwayed into talking about the African American past. My paintings are not political in the sense of an indictment, as they are not about people but about the past, and I am concerned more with writing about that Mythos from a different perspective. My paintings about the middle passage especially fit within this genre, since in my school books in Jamaica there is not a mention of slavery. I am interested in the conscious Jamaican role in the middle passage, as the books talked traditionally about the trafficking of cargo (and thus slaves) rather than Slavery, which was taught as goods trade and not about the slaves. The british, after all, were the ones who made the money even though Slavery is seen as American. The artist painting is mining the past of America, because all of these things make America: Slavery, migration, and all the other parts of African American History. But I could never talk about it all, it would take ten lifetimes!” He laughs good-naturedly.
Do you have any advice for aspiring artists, or for your students?
Oh, Absolutely. My advice is this: When students come to art school, they assume that they came to learn art. The tendency then is to ignore the assumptions of the past, and assume that they are the things that you leave outside and don’t go here. But what artists add to their art is their prior knowledge. Many drop what they knew and discover later on that they need it after all, and they should not forget where they came from.
Is that what happened to you when you first came here?
Oh yes, I had to go back to what I knew after I came to America. You have to remember that there is really no such thing as art. Art is a human construct. You never know what art will look like, it takes both people in a society and artists to make the next generation of art.
In that vein, how would you describe your artistic process, then? You’ve said that you often have 10-15 works in progress at a time and you finish 6-10 for the year?
I work on an idea, I draw it out and then do an underpainting so I don’t forget what I was trying to do. Usually about 5-6 works into it, it evolves. But sometimes you need a painting to incubate. The first shot is often not the best.” He laughs again here.
So what’s going to be next for you?
Make more art!
We ended our interview here, shook hands warmly and parted ways. The brief conversation that we had was enlightening as well as inspirational. I look forward to seeing what else Keith Morrison creates, and enjoying more of his visual dialogue about slavery, the Transatlantic slave trade, and African American history from the eyes of an artist who is both Caribbean and American.
Keith Morrison currently has work on display in the Susquehanna Art Museum currently, and is in the process of working on a new solo exhibition. You can find more information about his work at his website, http://keithmorrison.com/.
More information on Keith Morrison’s Work:
Keith Morrison By Rene Ater Pomegranate Press, 2004
African Diaspora in the Cultures of Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States. Edited by Persephone Braham University of Delaware Press, 2014