August 15, 2019 

By Nadine Matthews 

Contributing Writer 

James Phillips started creating art when he was about five years old; in a family that was decidedly not artistic. He says, “My family would have rather I became a doctor or lawyer but as I got older they accepted it.” Phillips was born in Brooklyn, NY but raised by his uncle and aunt in rural Virginia. “My aunt and uncle were farmers and supported themselves that way,” he explains.


Phillips, who currently teaches studio art classes at Howard University, is one of the artists highlighted in the current Broad Museum exhibition, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. Per the museum’s promotional materials, “The exhibition aims to shine a light on the broad spectrum of Black artistic practice from 1963 to 1983, one of the most politically, socially, and aesthetically revolutionary periods in American history.”


Running through September 1st, this exhibition features the work of Black artists who created art during a time of great social tumult. The dawn of the post-Civil Rights era, the Black Power movement, and beginnings of the modern American Black Middle Class moved fitfully toward the new America of the seventies and eighties where Black American identity fully matured, and the nation itself seemed to make good on its moral obligations. Soul of a Nation also features the work of artists such as Faith Ringgold, Emory Douglas, and Emma Amos. It brings together for the first time, the excitingly disparate practices of more than sixty artists from this important moment, offering an unparalleled opportunity to contextualize their works as a collective.


Phillips, like other artists included in this exhibition, was part of the historic AfriCobra (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) art collective. Formed in 1968, and undoubtedly influenced by the Black Arts Movement in literature, theater, and academia, AfriCobra was focused on incorporating African aesthetics, iconography and positive political imagery into African American art. Phillips joined the group in 1972.


Though Phillips had always been an artist, he wasn’t aware of the possibilities of art as an extension and expression of identity until he reached adolescence. In junior high school one of his teachers, he says, “Taught me that Black people could have large noses and thick lips and be dignified. Later,” he recalls the original sense of awe still etched in his voice, “I discovered Charles White through the book, Image of Dignity. It was such a source of inspiration that I then began learning about African art.”


Phillips’ mother moved him to Philadelphia in his later teen years. He explains “She wanted me to live there with a sister of hers so I could attend an integrated school.” At that time, of course, schools in Virginia were still de facto segregated.


In high school, Phillips continued learning about the use of art in projecting images and perceptions of the Black race as a whole. He says he began to believe that, “As African Americans we have to address the issues people of the African diaspora deal with. We have to make a statement about certain things we experienced. The work has always been about identity, from the Harlem Renaissance to the Afro-Futurists.”


Ordered chaos and great attention to detail mark much of Phillips’ work. In addition, it reflects the signature style of AfriCobra artists in its use of vibrant color, native African imagery, and the rhythms of traditional African music as well as Jazz, a musical art form created by Black Americans. His work is included in several well-known collections, including the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture Arts and Artifacts Collection of the New York City Public Library and Hampton University.


Phillips’ passion increased throughout his twenties and he pursued art even more seriously. In the mid-sixties, he turned his focus first to contemporary African artists and then to the giants of contemporary African American art such as Romare Bearden, Archibald Motley, Jacob Lawrence, and John Biggers. European and White American artists such as Picasso and Jackson Pollock also influenced him. Though he acknowledges the dual role of art in trying to catalyze change in society, for him the actual aesthetics always take precedence. “The message,” he emphasizes, “is never more important than the art, it has to be the art first.”


Though the concept of cultural appropriation has generated recent controversy, Phillips would argue that it is as old as the art world itself and it was something he noticed as a young artist. He explains, “With Modern Art you look at Cubists and you look at people like Gauguin and they just appropriated somebody else’s culture to create Western art with a new look that is definitely not European, and it’s definitely not American.”


Another controversial topic are the parameters of African-American culture. Part of the artworld for decades, Phillips admits he is taken somewhat aback by recent claims by some, that African-Americans don’t have their own culture. “You notice,” he says “If you look at artists from French countries, a lot of their work is influenced by Basquiat and Basquiat was African-American. I don’t care what island he came from, he came from the Americas.”

Category: Education