An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections

Art, Diaspora, and Identity: The John Biggers Papers

Posted on July 30, 2014 by

Michael Camp, Emory University 

in Archives and Collections
Posted on: 
August 7, 2014

Michael Camp, Emory University 

Southern Spaces is pairing with Emory University's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL) to publish short features on MARBL collections, events, and exhibits that tell the history of spaces and places in the US South. These posts investigate the geographical, historical, and cultural study of real and imagined southern spaces through the lens of archival sources and materials and are featured on both the Southern Spaces and MARBL blogs.

John Biggers paints House of the Turtle, Hampton University, Hampton, Virginia, ca. 1990. Photo courtesy of John Biggers's Estate. John Biggers Papers, Emory University Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.
John Biggers paints House of the Turtle, Hampton University, Hampton, Virginia, ca. 1990. Photo courtesy of John Biggers's Estate. John Biggers Papers, Emory University Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.

In July 1957, Houston-based artist John Biggers traveled on a United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) fellowship to Ghana, Nigeria, and Dahomey (now part of Benin) to investigate multiple strands of cultural heritage on the African continent.1 Visiting both rural villages and burgeoning cities, Biggers was particularly struck by Oku Ampofo, a medical doctor and talented artist based near the Ghanaian capital of Accra. In his handwritten travel notes, now located in Emory's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL), Biggers described Ampofo as a "true intellectual" who believed "in the building of Africa, in the development of people, in that which is true and good." Biggers believed Ampofo embodied "the New Africa," linking the continent's past with its future through his artwork, which included ebony and mahogany carvings along with cement statues.2 Noting that the "strong and exuberant character, and personality of the African" endured despite "influences from other peoples," Biggers contended in a typed summary of his travels that the "original values of the old African cultures still have profound meaning today."3

Cotton Pickers, 1947. Sketch by John Biggers, depicting his early realist style. Photo courtesy of John Biggers's Estate. John Biggers Papers, Emory University Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.
Cotton Pickers, 1947. Sketch by John Biggers, depicting his early realist style. Photo courtesy of John Biggers's Estate. John Biggers Papers, Emory University Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.

Throughout his long career, Biggers struggled to create works that would, like Ampofo's, both honor the legacies of the past and look hopefully toward the future. Biggers's own art engaged the experiences of African Americans in the US South. Much like West Africans who were grappling with the inheritances of colonialism, African Americans lived daily with the reality of being both African and American. Over the course of a multi-decade career, Biggers struggled to adequately express this tension.4 While his early pieces adhered to European styles of realism, Biggers's later work began to incorporate more stylized and symbolic elements drawn from African traditions, creating a hybrid style of realistic and abstract forms. Biggers also collected African sculptures, studying each piece in his home until its meaning revealed itself to him. Biggers worked (sometimes to the point of exhaustion) to meld African images with the iconography of the US South to create works that could provide African Americans with a sense of artistic identity.5

As part of his mission to illuminate African American experiences, Biggers helped found the Art Department at Houston's Texas Southern University (TSU) and served as its first head.6 Students responded enthusiastically to his direction. In March 1978, as part of a celebration of Biggers's thirtieth anniversary at TSU, a number of former students wrote to express gratitude to their teacher. "Thanks for being a guiding light for young black artists," wrote one, adding thanks for "inspiring blackness as a true meaning towards creative expression."7 A long-time colleague remembered, "the Joy of those kids who sat at your feet and learned the Beauty of their race and a measure of self-pride, myself included."8

House of the Turtle, pre-installation, Hampton University, Hampton, Virginia, ca. 1992. Mural by John Biggers. Photo courtesy of John Biggers's Estate. John Biggers Papers, Emory University Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.
House of the Turtle, pre-installation, Hampton University, Hampton, Virginia, ca. 1992. Mural by John Biggers. Photo courtesy of John Biggers's Estate. John Biggers Papers, Emory University Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.

Biggers's blending of different symbols and traditions came to its most mature form in a pair of murals, Tree House and House of the Turtle, begun in 1990 at Virginia’s Hampton University and painted with the help of the artist's nephew James.9 Both murals include abstract and symbolic images, but House of the Turtle in particular engages Hampton's origins as a school for the children of slaves (and for the children of Native Americans). The top of the mural depicts two students of African descent holding a lamp and a flower, symbols of growth and illumination. Though stylized African forms appear throughout House of the Turtle, the triangular shape at the top of the mural evokes the "shotgun houses" of Biggers's North Carolina youth, a motif that appears throughout his works.10

Though John Biggers passed away in 2001, his first-hand account of the 1957 trip to West Africa offers researchers a perspective from which to understand Biggers’s artistic motivations. In addition to diaries and accounts from the trip, the John Biggers papers in MARBL also contain correspondence, writings, photographs, and other materials illuminating Biggers's lengthy career as an artist, educator, university administrator, and community activist. Reflecting MARBL's commitment to collecting and preserving the work of important African American artists, Biggers's papers join the collections of other notable artists of his generation, including those of Benny Andrews and Mildred S. Thompson.

About the Author

Michael Camp is a graduate processing assistant in MARBL and a PhD student in the department of History at Emory University. He received his BA in History from the University of Tennessee and his MA in social sciences from the University of Chicago.

  • 1. Biggers published a book after his trip titled Ananse: the Web of Life in Africa, three copies of which are available in the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, including two that were Biggers's personal copies and one that belonged to African American composer William Levi Dawson.
  • 2. John Biggers, typescript draft of travel diary, July 4, 1957, John Biggers Papers, Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Books Library, Emory University.
  • 3. John Biggers, typescript draft of travel diary, John Biggers Papers, Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Books Library, Emory University.
  • 4. W.E.B, Du Bois, founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), wrote passionately about this "double consciousness" of African American identity. MARBL and Woodruff Library contain extensive holdings of The Crisis, the NAACP's official journal.
  • 5. Olive Jensen Theisen, Walls that Speak: The Murals of John Biggers (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2010), 70-73.
  • 6. TSU, a historically black university (HBCU), was established in 1927 as the private Houston Colored Junior College. It was converted into a public institution and renamed Texas State University for Negroes in 1947, and in 1951 was renamed again as Texas Southern University.
  • 7. Curtis Watson, Jr. to John Biggers, March 1978, and Al Blair to John Biggers, March 1978, John Biggers Papers, Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Books Library, Emory University.
  • 8. Al Blair, letter to John Biggers, March 1978, John Biggers Papers, Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Books Library, Emory University.
  • 9. Hampton Institute, also an HBCU, was founded in 1868 by members the American Missionary Association to provide education to former slaves. It established a program for teaching Native Americans in 1878, a project that lasted until 1923. With the addition of several academic programs, the Institute became Hampton University in 1984.
  • 10. Theisen, Walls that Speak, 100-03.

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