Web of Life: The Legacy of John T. Biggers

by Liz Kim June 10, 2024
Stylized depiction of four women standing in front of a receding group of row houses. Each woman is symbolic of the four seasons.

John T. Biggers, “Four Seasons,” 1990, lithograph. Permanent Collection, University Museum, Texas Southern University

A well-known lithograph, John T. Biggers’s Four Seasons (1990) symbolizes many of the themes present in his work throughout his career. Represented in multiple museum collections, the print is one of his most recognizable works — it was included, for instance, in the exhibition Dirty South, curated by Valerie Cassel Oliver in 2021, which toured through numerous U.S. venues, including the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. As a part of Texas Southern University’s museum collection, however, the work takes on a deep synchronic meaning in the history of this HBCU, as a place that regenerates memory and history through cycles of time and generations. 

Below, through Four Seasons, I reflect on a selection of Biggers’s works in relation to those of TSU alumni, dated between the late 1950s to the present. As one of the key HBCUs in Texas, TSU has been fundamental to shaping Black art in the American South since Biggers founded its art department in 1949. He taught at TSU until his retirement in 1983 and continued to produce and influence art in Houston until his death in 2001. An artist who was colleagues with Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett at Hampton University in Virginia, and trained there with art educator Viktor Lowenfeld, Biggers combined powerful imagery of African Americans with the historical panoramas of Mexican muralism, utilizing symbols he found on his trips to West Africa starting in 1957. 

Biggers’s work has been difficult to contextualize within art history because of his major shifts in style at key points in his career, and his being based out of Houston — in the South — rather than within a larger community of Black artists like those in Chicago or New York. His oeuvre changed after his 1957 trip to West Africa, with a focus on Ghana, which turned his social realism of the 1940s and early 50s into a new visionary style that combined an interest in the social fabric of the south side of Houston with spiritual and cultural symbols from West Africa. The style of his work between the late 1950s through the 90s can be characterized as a precursor to the concept of Afrocentricity founded in the 1980s and recent Afrofuturistic visions of contemporary Black art and culture within the last decade.

A black and white photograph of John Biggers with one of his paintings in the background.

John Biggers with one of his paintings. Courtesy of the Houston Chronicle.

Biggers recounted his 1957 trip to West Africa in a richly illustrated book of drawings called Ananse: The Web of Life in Africa. He wrote, “[t]he impact of Africa almost paralyzed my creative efforts; the drama and the poetic beauty were devastating.” He was particularly struck by the figures of Ghanaian women as leaders of their communities, and their relationship to the Akan religious belief in Ohemmaa, the queen mother who created the universe by birthing the sun. By drawing a connection between his diasporic home in the American South and West Africa, he became convinced that the promised land in African American hymns belonged to the “historical memory handed down from the golden past of Africa.” Furthermore, he expressed his criticism of European colonialist ideology as replacing West African art education, stating “I was sickened to see traditional European art taught in some of the schools and colleges at the expense of the rich African art heritage.” These concepts of matrilineal legacies, historical memory of the Afrodiasporic motherland, and African spirituality and symbolism became the foundations of his practice subsequent to his West African visit. 

According to one of the concept’s key founders, Molefi Kete Asante, Afrocentricity is a philosophical paradigm that places Africa at the center of Afrodiasporic cultural identity, originating from the Pan-African movement of the 1960s. It displaces the Eurocentric views of history and culture, toward Afrodiasporic agency and well-being. Recently, these concepts have been joined with reassessments of Afrofuturism by figures such as Reynaldo Anderson and Aaron X. Smith, who have argued for a less Eurocentric approach which is grounded in African tradition and genealogy. Biggers’s work subsequent to his West African visit represents earlier manifestations of this interest, around notions of matriarchy, motherland, and West African symbols. 

Looking at Four Seasons with fresh eyes, the four matriarchal figures standing before Houston’s rows of shotgun houses take on a new Ghanaian meaning. Each woman represents a different season as indicated best by their sleeve lengths, alluding to the correspondence between land and the different times of the year, with these figures representing the syncretic Mother Earth in Biggers’ Afrodiasporic home of Houston. The first woman on the far left with the longest sleeve is winter, and she is joined on the porch by a lightbulb that symbolizes the cold, long nights of the season. The next figure is autumn, wearing an ochre checkered dress like the color of fall leaves; she pulls at her dress as one gathers crops in harvest. Adjacent is the figure of spring, with a multicolored dress ranging from brown and yellow to blue-green. She drapes a clean washcloth across her body with both her hands, symbolizing renewal. The figure on the right end is summer, in a sleeveless dress with bluish checkered patterns, who also drapes a washcloth across, but one that is weighed down, nestling the fuller growth of nature during this time of the year. The work is a meditation on the changing of seasons, repetitions and continuous rebirth, synthesizing the relationship between his adopted homeland in Houston and his memories of Ghana. 

John T. Biggers, “Web of Life,” 1957-59, oil and tempera on canvas. permanent collection of University Museum, Texas Southern University. Photo: Liz Kim

Four Seasons resonates with Web of Life (1957-1959), the large-scale painting by Biggers permanently installed at the museum. Spanning 26 feet wide, the monumental work evokes a mural form. Based on a smaller tempera on wood study located at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the work is a testament to the interconnectedness of living organisms and how they transform along with their environment within the cyclical changes of seasons throughout the year. The order of the seasons in this work corresponds to Four Seasons, with winter on the far left, autumn and spring in the middle, and summer on the right, each represented by hibernating and active animal life, as well as by figures harvesting and sowing seeds. At the center is the Great Mother of the Earth, nestling an infant deep within her bosom and incubating herself and her baby within a protective network of tree roots. Joining hands above and across her are the outstretched arms of a woman and a man on either side of the congestion of roots, and between these figures and the central Mother are round womb-like spaces containing infants and developing embryos, which grow amongst the intertwined roots. Also tangled within the web are languid, decomposing skeletons that feed into the cycles of life. 

This important work captures the origins of Southern Black culture that Biggers found during his trip to Ghana in the 1950s and continued to inform his art throughout the rest of his career: matrilineal communities, intergenerational care in tune with nature, and West African ancestral history. When reading Four Seasons in relation to this work, which was made three decades earlier, the lithograph represents the grounding of Biggers’s ideology to his adopted home of Houston and to its local history and urban environment. In this context, the works of TSU alumni themselves, like the newborns and skeletons within the painting, are brought to life by the teachings of Biggers. 

What is surprising when considering the larger scope of works by TSU alumni within the permanent collection is that the pictures Biggers’s pupils made regarding their realities on Houston’s southside were unable to connect with the themes of matrilineal cultures, community through nature, and West African symbolism that Biggers taught and advocated throughout his teaching career. This indicates that the lessons Biggers brought back from West Africa remained unavailable to some of his students. The reason for this disconnection, based on historical records of TSU, is the racism the students experienced, both structural and psychological, within their lifetimes in the American South.

Desegregation in Houston during the early 1960s was organized by TSU students, led by alumnus Eldrewey Stearns. Between 1959 and 1963, Stearns led student sit-ins throughout segregated stores, theaters, and restaurants in Houston, which prompted Houston’s business leaders to eventually integrate their businesses. In the early part of these sit-ins, Stearns and fellow peaceful protesters were harassed and assaulted by white supremacists. They continued to be arrested for asking to be served at segregated businesses. It was a momentous and joyous occasion when Houston’s business leaders eventually agreed to integrate their stores in 1963. However, for Stearns and the Black community, integration meant a loss of Black identity and organization that existed before, as many Black businesses closed when they lost customers to formerly segregated businesses. Stearns was committed to a mental hospital in 1967 after a punitive, overblown trial based on testimonies by unqualified clinicians. This structural and psychological racism continued to be a part of Houston’s social fabric throughout the 1970s and beyond, as reflected in the art of TSU alumni. 

A crow flies on the left hand side of the painting, in the center is a girl covering her eyes, on the right is a christ figure crucified on a tree. They all exist on a non descriptive grey background.

Oliver Parson, “Untitled,” 1971, oil on wood, permanent collection, University Museum, Texas Southern University. Photo: Liz Kim

In Oliver Parsons’ Untitled (1971), a horizontal painting on wood, we find a surrealist work grappling with painful themes on a beguilingly light blue background, which is roughly divided into three sections. In the center part of the composition, a young Black girl in a checkered black and white dress stands with her forearms protectively over her face, her head buried in the crook of her arms, with her palms tensely open against the viewer in a gesture to repel. Her solitary and defensive figure is a direct rejection of Biggers’s matrilineal legacy. On the right side, a Christ figure with grayish-blue skin is nailed to a dead tree, his rib gashed open. A bloody West African cloth hangs from one of the naked branches, dripping blood that pools on the ground. Up above, a crow screams with its wings open, as if taken by grief. The corpse, the desiccated tree with its broken limbs, and the bloodied cloth are a rebuke of Biggers’s interest in nature, care, and continuity, as is the empty, forlorn background. 

On the left-hand side, Parsons indicates the reasons for his disconnection from Biggers’ lessons. A crow attempts to fly away toward the outer edge of the frame, with two vermilion wounds and thin threads of blood tracing across its path. In its beak is a silvery coin inscribed with “In God” set against a cobweb cinching a dollar bill in the middle. The struggle for the coin, for the dollar, is inescapable, unreachable, and wounding. It is a work speaking of the anxiety and despair in the political disillusionment of the 1970s, with the realization that desegregation failed to deliver fully on the hopeful promise of equality and better life for Black Southerners. Parsons’ work is a powerful rejection of Biggers’ themes, based on the lived experiences of his immediate environment and characterized by alienation. 

A man in a suit stands in a crowd of people with their hands raised. One figure with sunglasses and a goatee in the bottom left corner faces outward from the crowd.

Dennis Black, “Untitled,” 1998, charcoal on wood, permanent collection, University Museum, Texas Southern University. Photo: Liz Kim

Dennis Black’s 1998 Untitled represents how life had both changed and stayed the same in the 90s economic boom. The work is charcoal and paint on a large unprimed wood panel. The wood is cracking, and gradually arching, bending convexly in age. In the center of the piece, painted in grayscale against the raw woodgrain, is a representation of a clean-shaven young Black man who has closely cropped hair and is wearing a black suit. His tie is loosened, and he looks out into the distance with a frozen, startled expression. For a Black man who was able to join the corporate ranks and experience sudden upward social mobility during the 90s, what did his newfound place mean? Upon closer inspection, thin red paint splatters cover his skin, like scars of the microaggressions he would have had to deal with in the office. Against the realism of the figures, a flat white halo and a set of wings feather out from the man’s body, like graffiti, representing the artifice of assimilationist expectations within a white middle-class society. 

This work represents a further departure from Biggers’s themes. There are no matrilineal connections in this composition, as the main figure is surrounded by numerous outstretched arms all reaching toward the heavens, without being able to connect to one another. Nature, as represented by the raw wooden panel, is punctured with circular branch grains that are scraped open like gaping wounds, and when coinciding with flesh, they look like festering sores on palms, arms, and faces. On the left-hand corner is a close-up view of another man’s face, wearing sunglasses and sporting a goatee. A scorched round woodgrain is located at his right temple, and the black paint of the sunglasses drips down onto his face, like tears. Gone are any allusions to West African symbols. What were the man in the center’s responsibilities toward the Black communities that were struggling? The work indicates that there were no easy answers. 

What these two works indicate is that Biggers’s Afrocentric visions were difficult to translate to the daily realities of living on Houston’s south side. Racism, both structural and psychological, continued to impact the lives of students who studied with Biggers, and many of the works in the University Museum’s permanent collection are testaments to these continued difficulties. Despite this past, a more hopeful view can be found in a work by Alexandra J. Fullerton, titled It Me (2017). In a self-portrait rendered in soft pastel against a raw green paper background, the artist’s expression is fully open and visible, with twists of her braided hair falling around her slightly-askew face. Her complexion is balanced through the use of yellow and orange, which forms a calm, analogous color combination with the light green textured surface. With a slight smile on her curved lips, she looks curious and assertive as she faces her past, her mirrored self, and the future beyond. Although she has not reached out to her community yet, in her youth she is an emblem of hope and  life itself — the contemporary answer to Parson’s skeletal despondency in 1971, and Black’s paralysis in 1998. 

An oil pastel portrait of a young girl with braids.

Alexandra J. Fullerton, “It Me,” 2017, soft pastel. Photo: Liz Kim

This difference between the despondency of subject matter between the 1970s through the 90s, and self-affirmation in the contemporary context, can be discerned by returning to the difference between Web of Life, made shortly after Biggers’s trip to West Africa in the late 1950s, and his Four Seasons, from 1990. With the latter work, Biggers shifted away from themes of nature and replaced them with the metropolitan environment of the city of Houston itself. This uncoupling between the concept of “motherland” and continental Africa — replacing it with the local realities — has led to a renewed period of empowerment and growth for visual arts at TSU that extends Biggers’s legacy, with distinguished alumni active in the contemporary art scene, including printmaker Delita Martin, conceptual artist Nathaniel Donnett, photographer Bria Lauren, and painter Rick Lowe. By documenting the connections between John T. Biggers and his pupils, as well as those who are contributing to this history today, the University Museum’s permanent collection is an important encapsulation of the experience of Black life in the past seven decades. It serves as a record of Southern Black institutional history as overcoming both structural and psychological racism over the past century. Within this theme of communal healing, the Afrocentricity of the African diaspora in the U.S. is located in the lived past and present of Black communities as led by historical Black institutions, rather than in a myth of a promised land. Here is the future.


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Scott Chase June 12, 2024 - 13:51

I truly enjoyed the article, particularly since I had recently seen Salt Marsh, Mr. Biggers’ mural at the University of Houston-Downtown. https://publicartuhs.org/artwork/salt-marsh/

Beth B Schneider June 15, 2024 - 19:13

Lovely article about Dr. Biggers and his students. I was especially happy to see the work of Dennis Black who for several years was a fabulous colleague at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. One small point, Hampton University is in Hampton, Virginia, not North Carolina.


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