John Biggers, Murals and the History of Art at Texas Southern
Updated: Aug 11
John Thomas Biggers was born April 13, 1924 in Gastonia, North Carolina, in a shotgun house built by his father Paul.
Paul Biggers was a school principal, teacher, farmer, shoemaker and Baptist preacher; while his mother Cora was a housekeeper. Biggers was raised in a big family, the youngest of seven children. After his father died in 1937, his mother, Cora began working in an orphanage for African American children, while, John and his brother Joe were sent to a Missionary Association school for African-American children called Lincoln Academy in Kings Mountain, NC.
Biggers's Uncle was a successful plumber and once he graduated from the Academy, he began attending Hampton Institute with the goal of becoming a plumber. His college application included drawings of a boiler room. However, when John visited the art department and took a class with Viktor Lowenfeld, all of that changed.
Viktor Lowenfeld was a renowned educator and artist who came to Hampton in 1939, after escaping Nazi persecution in Austria. He encouraged his students to use artwork to record their emotions, thoughts and experiences. Having survived the holocaust, he had a sense of the psychological impact of violence, oppression and prejudice experienced by his students. His energy and vision inspired them to produce excellent works. He created an atmosphere of deep camaraderie and commitment to art among a very dynamic group of young intellectuals. Lowenfeld introduced his students to works of artists Thomas Hart Benton, Reginald Marsh, Harry Sternberg along with Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueriros. These politically provocative artists helped shape John's perspective and use of public art work.
Biggers first mural “Dying Solider” was created in 1942 at Hampton and was included in a student exhibition called “Young Negro Art” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1943. While at Hampton, Biggers was also influenced by the presence of artist Charles White, who was awarded a Julius Rosenwald grant to paint a mural at a black college. White chose Hampton because of its reputation as study center for art education. Biggers and other students observed closely while he prepared to create The Contribution of the Negro to American Democracy, absorbing everything they could during the installation. Biggers also studied under sculpture and graphic artist Elizabeth Catlett, emerging from Hampton as both a sculpture and painter.
Biggers was drafted by the US Navy in May of 1943 and released in 1945. Lowenfeld left Hampton to teach art education at Pennsylvania State University and persuaded Biggers to follow. John Biggers received a B.S in Art Education from Pennsylvania State University in January of 1948. In 1949, he was contacted by Dr. Raphael O’Hare Lanier the first president of the newly established Texas State University for Negros in Houston. Mrs. Susan McAshan recommended Dr.Lanier interview Biggers for the position of chairman. A patron of the arts, Mrs.McAshan became a longtime ally of John Biggers and the Texas Southern University art department. Lanier had the vision of creating a “museum of Negro culture” for the University and Biggers shared his philosophy in regards to the importance or preserving Black cultural heritage.
Raphael O’Hara Lanier successfully brought Biggers on as art department chair in 1948, at the time it was called the Texas State University for Negros (1947-1951).
Biggers encouraged his students to draw upon their cultural heritage. The 1905’s was a decade of painful self-consciousness for blacks. For instance, in 1950 though Biggers entered and won an art competition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) – Blacks were only allowed to visit the museum one specific day a week. And because the reception was scheduled for another day, Biggers could not attend the function to receive his award. This prompyed the MFAH director James Chillman in the months following, to campaign for aboilshment of the museum’s segregation polices.
While working to establish the Art program at Texas Southern, Biggers created murals for various organizations in the Houston community including “The contribution of Negro Women to American Life and Education” (1952-1953). In preparing for the mural, he conducted extensive research into the history of black women in American society, including the figures such as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, so much so, that his former professor Viktor Lowenfeld suggested the project was worthy of a doctoral dissertation. The research and presentation of this mural became his first major academic statement on the un-celebrated role of the black woman and he earned his PHD at Pennsylvania State University as a result. Biggers completed numerous other collaborations and projects during this time and his work garnered the respect and support of TSU’s 2nd president Dr.Samuel Nabrit, who recognized the importance of students experiencing such passion from an instructor. Biggers was awarded a UNESCO fellowship to Africa in 1957, along with his wife Hazel, they traveled to Ghana, Togo, the Republic of Benin and Nigeria. This trip was incredibly impactful on Bigger, adding new dimensions of cultural origins and awareness to his work and career. In the spring of 1967, a major incident occurred on campus. At this time White male students from the University of Houston habitually speed down Wheeler Street shouting insults at black female students on campus.The TSU students frustrated with this treatment and hoping to put an end to the abuse, decided to retaliate. On the evening of May 16th, when the routine insults began, TSU male students responded by throwing rocks, bottles and anything else they could find. The Houston Police department stormed the campus and forced the males from their dormitory beds, made them lie on the ground while they ransacked their rooms supposedly searching for weapons. Many were arrested, this outrageous treatment led to a congressional hearing at which Biggers and other faculty testified. These types of scenarios along with riots, marches and the leadership of Martin Luther King and other activists, marked the developing Civil Rights movements and much of this is chronicled in the murals of Hannah Hall.
Hannah Hall Murals The murals of Hannah Hall were an idea conceived and developed by Dr. John Biggers. Originally the Hannah Hall building served many purposes, art class was taught on the 3rd floor and the 2nd floor also had classrooms. Dr. Biggers felt that it was an expression of tremendous artistic growth for each senior art major to complete a mural as a graduation requirement and depending on their focus; completion of Terra Cotta sculpture, pottery and weaving were also a requirement. Students were never censored as to the content of the mural whether it was personal or political; Dr. Biggers gave the students freedom to express whatever was on their minds. However, he was extremely strict in the execution of the murals,and if they were not completed within a timely fashion, or the technique was determined to be weak, the wall was then given over to another student. This rarely happened though because the students were inspired by the prospect of creating public art to be seen by hundreds of campus visitors. Social themes pertinent to the lives of African Americans at the time such as police brutality, poverty, work, government, prejudice, family and drugs are found in these murals. As a result of this ambitious program, Texas Southern is the only university in the United States to have over 128 student murals on the campus, dating from 1949 to 2013. Dr. John Biggers has three murals on campus: Web of Life in the University Museum; Family Unity in the Sterling Student Life Center; and NUBIA in the Jesse Jones Business Building. “Web of Life” (1956-1962) was the 1st mural to reflect upon Biggers, African experience. His goal was to portray graphically, the interdependence of living organisms operating within the balance of nature and the relationship of all organisms to one another through evolutionary descent. Elementary studies began in late 1956 and it was created during the years that the civil rights movement was gaining momentum.It was completed concurrently with the publication of Bigger’s Book Ananse: The Web of Life in Africa.
“Web of Life”emphasizes the cyclical nature of creation; how decay feeds new life, winter gives way to spring. Biggers stated “The African woman, in her divine creative capacity, motivated within me a desire to paint murals from a matriarchal point of view; whereas European artists have been motivated to paint from patriarchal point of view.” Web of Life also has its western references portraying accurate representations of the African American rural experience. Web of life rises up from and returns to earth – rather than springing from sky.
“Family Unity” is a mural requested by TSU students for the newly built Sterling Student Life Center. He began work on this mural in 1974 and finished in 1977. Biggers began to redefine his approach to the human form inspired by his trips to Africa. "Family Unity" depicts a shotgun house transformed into a temple, at the base is a two-headed crocodile moving black culture across primordial waters.There is an obvious shift to a more abstract presentations, repetition and pattern in this work and others created around and after this time period.
“Nubia, The Origins of Business and Commerce” (unveiled September 22, 1999), was an idea initially suggested by former TSU President Priscilla Slade – who wanted to see something about the contribution of the African Civilization to the history of economics. Biggers states “We knew about trade and selling salt in the desert, but we did not know that Nubia was the first society to use gold.” The research found that gold was used to suggest the soul because it did not tarnish, it remained as that and was not used for trade for a long time. You gave gold to represent your soul. It was a like a point of view. If the soul was gold, you had to be fair. You could not exploit anybody.
This mural was collaboration between Biggers and his student Harvey Johnson; they describe it as an expression of the balance of cosmic principles of the universe along with the creation of business and commerce. It is symmetrically organized with a large center section balanced by two smaller sections on each side. Each of the five sections are filled with repetitive symbols. On one side, is the mining and refining of gold and the other side is the market place and temple activity. In the center is the ceremonial comb, a metaphor for the soul - the comb symbolizes the sun. The women are carrying boats on their heads. The boat is significant because spirits travel on great boats. “Nubian gold… expresses a permanence of the soul of the people. Through the children, our posterity.”
John Biggers on his works, “...it is a visualization of triumph of the human spirit, over the mundane, the material world. Through the process of birth, rebirth and ascension, life moves forward. Ascension is the overcoming; the rising above life’s struggle toward a new, more just reality."
The University Museum at Texas Southern
The University Museum gallery space is the result of a 1999 renovation of the Fairchild Building which was the first building constructed on campus. Designed by Rey de la Reza and Darrell A. Fitzgerald, the museum hosts exhibitions,
family activities, and numerous other events. The space is 11,000 square feet in area and the hardwood floor is from the original gym floor, dating from 1949. Prior to being transformed into the University Museum, the space served as a sports center, the official location for registration, a space for campus dances, and a site for general storage.The renovation of the space transformed it into the active museum that it is today.
Notes:Painted Over Murals
2 Murals by Harvey Johnson were painted over during the administration of President John Rudley in 2010.
1 Mural was painted over during the administration of President PriscillaSlade (1999 – 2006)
By Artist Ricky Denota – Nubian Gate of Tarharqua (1970’s)