Acquisitions: Jeff Donaldson Papers

By Mary Savig

March 21, 2017

This entry is part of an ongoing series highlighting new acquisitions. The Archives of American Art collects primary source materials—original letters, writings, preliminary sketches, scrapbooks, photographs, financial records and the like—that have significant research value for the study of art in the United States. The following essay was originally published in the fall 2016 issue (vol. 55, no. 2) of the Archives of American Art Journal. More information about the journal can be found at http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/toc/aaa/current.

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Jeff Donaldson letter to unidentified recipient, June 1967. Jeff Donaldson papers, circa 1960-2005. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

“Do you consider yourself a Black visual artist, an American visual artist, or an artist, period?” This question, posed by Jeff Donaldson (1932–2004) in an open letter to his peers in the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) in Chicago in 1967, motivated his work as an artist, art historian, activist, curator, and educator. Throughout his career, he remained committed to the principles of black cultural production.

We can see this commitment in Donaldson’s personal and professional papers, a 2015 gift to the Archives from his daughter, Jameela. This robust collection, which includes research files, typed and handwritten notes, and drafts of lectures and essays, shows how Donaldson shaped the history and historiography of black art.

In the late 1960s, Donaldson was an ambitious doctoral student in art history at Northwestern University who positioned himself at the forefront of creative activism on the South Side of Chicago. Drawing on the tenets of Black Power, he shaped the missions of OBAC and the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA), an artist collective of which he became a lifelong member.

In 1970, Donaldson moved to Washington, DC, to become chair of Howard University’s Department of Art and eventually dean of the College of Fine Arts. In 1977, he headed the North American committee of the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (known as FESTAC) in Lagos, Nigeria. And, for each of these endeavors, there are telling records in his papers.

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Jeff Donaldson, ca. 1970 / unidentified photographer. Jeff Donaldson papers, circa 1960-2005. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

As a whole, the papers show how Donaldson articulated a trans-African aesthetic. An artistic style that drew on interdisciplinary sources and that was characterized by vibrant hues, jazz-inspired rhythms, and political iconography of the African diaspora, Donaldson considered trans-African art an antidote to the hegemonic, Eurocentric canon. His administrative records on the formation of OBAC and the conception and planning of its famous public artwork The Wall of Respect (late 1960s) demonstrate Donaldson’s interdisciplinary and inclusive approach to making art. As has been well documented, the mural project was the product of the Visual Art Workshop in consultation with related OBAC workshops, Chicago cultural organizations, and the local neighborhood. “It seemed that overnight news of black artists painting pictures on the outside of a dilapidated tavern in the heart of the despised ghetto spread over Chicago, and the nation like flames in a windstorm,” observed Donaldson in notes on the mural.

The Donaldson Papers contain similar anecdotes pertaining to AfriCOBRA, FESTAC, and dozens of curatorial and writing projects. From his dissertation files of the 1960s to drafts of essays prepared for an issue of the International Review of African American Art guest edited by Donaldson in 1998, the papers intersect with many other collections in the Archives, particularly those of African American activist-artists Charles Henry Alston, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, David C. Driskell, Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, and Senga Nengudi. True to Donaldson’s global outlook and his desire to transform black art, moreover, his papers reach far beyond the scope of American art as they attend to the influence of contemporaneous African and Caribbean artists and collectives.

Mary Savig is the curator of manuscripts at the Archives of American Art.

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