Morehouse College is the poster institution for businessmen, theologians, politicians and scientists but it also has a long history of artists and art historians who have graduated from the institution. More specifically, the faculty and department of Art and Art History who have been a part of the faculty have built an under-the-radar level of brilliance that only adds to Morehouse’s legacy. Preoccupied with their students, the department’s faculty, Louis Delsarte, Michael Roman and Cosmo Whyte, have gone unnoticed, at times, by the institution and student body.
Unlike its partnering institutions, Clark Atlanta University and Spelman College, Morehouse isn’t primarily known for its burgeoning arts program, faculty, or student alumni.
The faculty, indeed, have begun to change the scope of what it means to be an art major at Morehouse. The art major, made possible through a partnership between Morehouse and Spelman, typically requires studio art majors to take their intro courses, Basic Drawing and Design, at Spelman or Clark Atlanta.
However, thanks to its professors, Morehouse now offers both courses and even additional studio art classes. The institution, with the efforts of the Art and Art History department faculty, is moving towards a more refined definition of a “real” art department. Catalysts for change, the three professors have made strides with a vision of developing a reputable art program.
Forgoing The Figure
With works large in scale and in even larger museum collections, Louis Delsarte, an Atlanta-based mix media artist and humanities professor, is soft-spoken and moves through campus often unseen. In his 12 years as an instructor at Morehouse, Delsarte, 72, has taught courses that include Survey of Visual Arts and most recently, African American Art: Mural Development, Life Drawing, Basic Design and Basic Drawing.
Surprisingly, with over 50 of years as an artist, Delsarte didn’t teach his first studio art class, African American Art: Mural Development, until Spring of 2015. Since then, Delsarte hasn’t taught a Survey of Visual Arts Course, but instead has added three additional classes to the course workbook.
“Many students requested that we have a program dedicated to the fine arts, art to practice,” said Delsarte. “Before, I was teaching Survey of Visual Arts, which was more history based.”
A painter, draftsman, muralist, printmaker, and poet, Delsarte’s work is representational in its visual makeup. Whether it’s Martin Luther King, Jr protesting with an “I Am A Man” sign, women congregating on a street in Brooklyn, or women dancing, his work references significant and important moments in history. The work, with its expressive and dramatic colors, still maintains a way to both captivate an audience and shift a narrative.
Brooklyn born and Pratt Institute educated, Delsarte is still a practicing artist. Even with several commissions around the world, Delsarte’s mural, Transitions, for New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority manages to still situate the once young boy back in Brooklyn, heavily rooted in African American culture.
“In the 12 years of being at Morehouse, I never considered I’d be teaching this class,” said Delsarte.
Delsarte’s work is featured in the collections of large and small cultural and art institutions around the world. These institutions include: The Studio Museum in Harlem, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York, and the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art at Spelman College.
As the instructor of four Survey of Visual art courses, Michael Roman’s introduction to Morehouse in Fall of 2013 was met with 143 new and returning students. A required class, Survey of Visual Arts examined the broad canon of Art History. However, Roman, with an untraditional style of teaching, introduced students to what art was but also what it could do, not just the history
Pushing back against the traditional Eurocentric gaze of art history, Roman familiarized his students with Black artists who were either left out or misrepresented in the text books administered for the course in particular.
Although it didn’t hit him until later, Roman realized at an opening convocation when speakers mentioned how the Dean of Chapel, Dr. Lawrence Edward Carter, had influenced a great deal of religious and spiritual leaders throughout the country during his tenure at Morehouse.
For so many students, Roman is the first point of contact if they intend to study art at Morehouse. The position, truthfully, is astounding in more ways than he could have ever imagined.
“To be honest, in the middle of it I didn’t realize what was happening,” said Roman. “I didn’t recognize the significance of the moment; I just knew it was a lot.”
As a student, Roman admits that he didn’t come into his own understanding of African American artists and art history until he took courses that focused exclusively on African American art. In those courses, he affirms that’s when he recognized and realized there was a lineage, or school, of African American artists to study and learn, he learned it.
“It’s about representation, just like everything else. It’s this idea that, ‘Hey! We’re here too and we make serious work.’ We don’t just make flyers and posters. We make deep thought provoking work that speaks to and shares our experience with others of like mind.”
Along with introducing artists, Roman, along with Delsarte, presented two courses to the fine arts department. Those courses, African America Art: Graphic Novel and African American Art: Mural Development, have served as the foundation for what the fine arts department can and will do.
“My hope is one day to house the studio major here, but to be able to offer the studio courses with such a fantastic artist, Delsarte, who I learned about in art history is something,” he said. “To have him here as a resource for our students is fantastic, and I don’t think the students, even quite frankly the faculty, realize the magnitude of having someone like him on our staff.”
With the support of Dr. Mel Foster, Chair of the Division of Humanities & Social Sciences, Dr. Clarissa Myrick-Harris, who is no longer at Morehouse, and Garikai Campbell, Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, everything came into fruition.
“It’s historic to be offering studio courses here at Morehouse,” he said. “I feel like what gets lost in the conversation is something of omission, in the sense that by not offering studio courses and by not allowing art majors to take art courses at their home institution, you’re essentially saying by omission that ‘Black men don’t make art,’ and it’s not a part of black male identity, but obviously that’s erroneous.”
As the central subject in his work, Black men have always arrived at a growing point in Romans trajectory as an artist. In particular, the series The Many Faces of Messiah Jones tells the story of boyhood to manhood and his [Messiahs] experience throughout. So often, especially in the real world, we like to single out specific events and we like to little people down to this one moment.
Superimposed on historical religious iconography, the Black bodies are positioned within an up-to-date narrative. This narrative, both contemporary and timeless, speaks to the fact that Black bodies have been, and will continue to be, the subject of issues associated with Black identity.
The recurrent site of objectification, misrepresentation, fear, and terror, Black men are continually brought into focus at the hands of police brutality. With the thought-provoking collection of works, Roman, examines present-day racial constructs and ideologies in contemporary culture.
“Whether it was a mistake, or a highlight in their life. Often, we like to look at these things in a vacuum as if they just popped out. Obviously that’s not the case, we’re a product of our experiences and a product of growth. With Messiah, I really wanted to show that growth process because so often we look at it as only a finished product.”
On The Radar
In early July, the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center announced the lineup of artists for the Atlanta Biennial (ATLBNL), and on that list was Morehouse professor of art, Cosmo Whyte. The biennial, which has been defunct for 7 years, includes artists from eight Southern states who are working in in the visual arts, and to be selected for to be a part of the show. Whyte is transcending as an artist.
Jamaican-born, Whyte attended Bennington College in Vermont for his Bachelor in Fine Arts, Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) for his Post-Baccalaureate Certificate and the University of Michigan for his MFA, where he graduated first in his class.
It was at MICA where Whyte met Roman, both were students at the time, and two now work in the same department. At one point while he was finishing graduate school, Roman informed Whyte there was a position opening and encouraged him to apply. Whyte jumped at the opportunity and found himself teaching four sections of Survey of Visual Art in Fall of 2015
“Morehouse was an institution I knew about for several years,” Whyte said. “Even when I was applying for undergrad, Morehouse was a school that was on my radar.”
Whyte’s work, in many ways, explores post-colonial identity through the lens of tourism, diaspora, globalization and migration. In many ways, the increasingly complex composition and subject matter is what distinguishes his body of work from other artists interrogating the same issues.
One work in particular, Stranger Than the Village, first appears as a man facing away from the camera with an image on his back and a talking device balanced on his head, but the real meaning is rooted in the works title. The image, of James Baldwin, an African American novelist and poet, assumes a relationship with his essay Stranger In The Village that was included in his collection of essays Notes of a Native Son in 1955.
The essay, which is an account of Baldwin’s experiences in Leukerbad, Switzerland, is similar to the experience Whyte had when living in a small town in Ghana, north of an area called Kumasi. The locals kept calling him Obroni, which is the Asante Twi word for western white foreigner, and in colloquially terms “white person” or “white man”.
“It was jarring for me as a Black man to come to the continent and run into Africans who were calling you white man,” he said. “It was messing with my head and I found myself getting upset.”
The device balanced on his head, which has replaced drums in Ghana’s public setting, are widely seen in the market places. Instead of drums, the device serves an integral function. It has a USB port and a cassette player, but no CD-ROM—that technology escaped.
“It’s exciting, and it’s also a part of me thinking of how I fit into the narrative of the south and where do I belong here. What does it mean to be southern and how do I fit into all of that? My migration, if we’re taking it from a starting point to where I am now, common south to the capital letter South, it’s an honor.”
The 2016 Atlanta Biennial is on view through December 18, 2016 and is curated by Victoria Camblin, ART PAPERS’ editor and artistic director; Daniel Fuller, Atlanta Contemporary curator; Aaron Levi Garvey, independent curator and co-founder of Jacksonville’s Long Road Projects; and Gia Hamilton, director of the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans.
Mentioning The Marginalized
For one student, Terrick Gutierrez, being a studio art minor means more than just a number in a department. It means being aware of art practices and methods on a collegiate level, both through experience and guidance from professors.
As an incoming freshman, being at Morehouse he was discouraged, or more so he wasn’t empowered, to pursue art as a minor. This was primarily because wasn’t even aware a fine arts major existed, and all of the courses students take are either offered at Spelman or Clark.
“In the more recent years, specifically last year, we’ve had more courses offered for studio art,” said Gutierrez. “One of the first courses I took was the mural painting course. It was transformative because and gave me inspiration to start believing in my craft.”
With professors like Professor Roman and Delsarte, Gutierrez understood the extent of having both professors on staff as advisors and mentors. However, the support of an institution for a student means more than administrators and advisors realize.
“We’re supposed to be a liberal arts institution, but for a lot of people who are into forms of creative expression, more specifically art, we’re left out and marginalized.”
Jayson Overby, Jr