Culture Shock at Texas Southern University

November 9, 2010 — Leave a comment

I’ve been uprooted so many times I stopped trying to put them down, and yet there are strands of me, left like rhizoids, across Asia, Australia, Europe, Africa and now America. In turn I’ve taken a little bit of the soil, metaphorically, from each country I’ve lived in and there have been twelve, but it is only now here in Houston, a city of diversity and tolerance, that I have finally felt able to truly root myself.

Much of that is due to the Texas Southern University Museum. The Fairchild Building, the oldest on campus and in which the University Museum is housed, is a space that has given me inspiration, calm and a sense of purpose. It is as if all the cultures I have been exposed to, have coalesced within its walls and I am comfortable.

I have come to understand through my involvement with the University Museum and the artists I have met within its walls, both on canvas and in person, that the culture shock I have often felt in foreign countries is similar to that felt by many African Americans searching for their roots, in their own country.

That unsettling mixture of confusion, disorientation and emotional upheaval is an emotion expected, but never enjoyed, by global nomads with every move to a new country. It is a feeling that also sometimes blankets those children born of immigrants in the USA – or any other country; that need to search for a cultural baseline from which to venture out into the world.

What has brought this retrospective mood to the fore?

It is the disquieting news that two murals on the TSU Campus by the well-known Texas artist and a TSU graduate, Harvey Johnson, have with the Administration’s knowledge and acquiescence been painted over. Painted in the early 70’s, the murals depicted African women on the shore of the ocean, and intimated at the artist’s awakening sense of self.

Such is the legacy of the TSU Art Department’s founder, Dr. John T. Biggers. Harvey Johnson studied under Biggers, and it was from him Johnson learned to take what he had garnered as a child from his mother and, “to articulate it – to crystallize it – into visual imagery” and, in Bigger’s words, “to express our culture.”

TSU is renowned for the murals and sculptures placed liberally around the Campus. The Art Department is the only one in the country to mandate mural painting as a part of the art course. Hannah Hall, the main administration building is home to some of those murals, though now two less, and the Thurgood Marshall School of Law takes pride in commissioning works from TSU graduates and local Houston artists.

TSU will now sadly have a less than honorable place in many artists and art patron’s minds in that this is the second time an Administration has destroyed murals. In 1971 against Dr. Biggers’ vehement protestations a wall featuring murals by Oliver Parsons and other TSU graduates was torn down. In the summer of 2010, two important murals by an established artist, Harvey Johnson, were randomly painted over while the school was on vacation. To make way for what? A white wall without a story.

What makes this whole sad episode ironic is that there is a strong push from within the University to have the murals, many of which depict the civil rights struggles, in some cases restored but in all cases preserved, and to have them declared a National Historical Site.

Money has apparently, since this travesty took place, been set aside to assess all the murals on campus. But will that bring Harvey Johnson’s epic works back to life? The artist has been philosophical about the destruction of his work, but one wonders at the legality of such an action. Can art be wantonly destroyed by anyone but the artist?

So the microcosm of diversity and tolerance, which I thought I’d found at TSU, is in fact not such a place of artistic integrity or cultural pride but just another place in which we find culture shock. Maybe of a different kind, but culture shock nonetheless.

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