The Porter Colloquium Turns 25

A Brief History of the Annual Conference and a Look at the 2015 Events

Olivia Drake

James A. Porter, Self Portrait, oil on linen canvas, c. 1935, 14 x 12.”  Courtesy of Swann Auction GalleriesThe James A. Porter Colloquium on African American art at Howard University turned 25 this year! Founded in 1990 by Floyd Coleman, then art history department chair at Howard, the colloquium is the leading forum covering both the history and contemporary criticism of this art.  

The colloquium was named after James A. Porter who taught at Howard University and became known as “the father of African American art history.”  Porter’s book, Modern Negro Art (1943), was the first detail history of the topic, spanning the artisans and artists of the 18th century colonial period through the 19th century to the painting, sculpture and graphic arts of the 20th century.  Porter add criticism to the record that was as artfully expressive as the works it described.  Another notable publication is his “Four Problems in the History of Negro Art” article in the January 1942 issue of the Journal of Negro Art.  

James A. Porter at Samella Lewis' house in Los Angeles, 1966. Photo: E.J. MontgomeryPorter’s associations spanned from artist Henry O. Tanner who Porter corresponded with beginning in 1931 and met in 1935 to Porter's student Tritobia Benjamin who herself became a distinguished art historian and member of the Howard art faculty.

Floyd Coleman (left) with curator Ruth Fine and artists Sam Gilliam and Richard Hunt at 2008 colloquium. Photo: Sharon FarmerFloyd Coleman, an astute thinker who has written numerous essays and conference papers, postponed his own interests in completing a book manuscript because of his devotion to building a strong M.A. program in art history at Howard and to sustaining the Porter Colloquium. He also worked hard to maintain the strengths of studio art program. He was determined to keep up traditions begun by James V. Herring, James A. Porter, Lois Mailou Jones and James L. Wells. 

Like the Henry O. Tanner-James A. Porter-Tritobia Benjamin legacy, Floyd Coleman's associations have spanned from trailblazers such as Samella Lewis — Coleman contributed the lead article to the first issue of the IRAAA published by Lewis — to a contemporary generation of art historians, curators, educators that include his former students Valerie Cassel Oliver, senior curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston; Sandra Jackson-Dumont, education chair, Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Tosha Grantham, the first African American curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art.

Artist EJ Montgomery and art historian/artist David Driskell at 2005 Colloquium. Photo: Sharon FarmerThe numerous outstanding scholars, artists and museum professionals who have presented talks at the Colloquia included art critic and curator Okwui Enwezor, anthropologist Johnetta Coles, art historian Kellie Jones, artist DJ Spooky, art historian Jacqueline Francis, art historian Samella Lewis, art historian Sharon Patton, cultural historian Richard Long, art historian Huey Copeland, artist and art historian David C. Driskell, artist Faith Ringgold, photographic historian Deborah Willis, art historian Alvia J. Wardlaw, art historian Ann Gibson, artist Sam Gilliam, cultural historian Sarah Lewis, cultural Porter distinguished lecturer, curator Franklin Sirmans at 2008 colloquium.  Photo: Sharon Farmercritic Kobena Mercer, curator and critic Franklin Sirmans, art historian Robert Farris Thompson and art historian Judith Wilson. 

Although Howard University is prestigious among HBCUs, its faculty still must overcome the constraints endemic to most HBCUs and other smaller institutions.  For this reason, volunteers and institutional affiliations have provided integral support to the colloquia.  Dedicated volunteers include Washington DC art collectors Juliette Bethea and Dianne Whitfield-Locke, and institutional affiliations have been formed with the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum and the University of Maryland’s David Driskell Center.

Art historian Jeffreen Hayes, artist Faith Ringgold and art patron Bennie Johnson at 2006 colloquium. Photo: Barbara WallaceAfter Floyd Coleman’s retirement, Grendolyn Everett, associate dean, Howard University Division of Fine Arts took over the coordination of the colloquium. Everett's accomplishments include organizing the 2010 FEARLESS: Risk Takers, Rule Breakers, and Innovators in African American Art and Art of the African Diaspora colloquium.  Gwendolyn Everett was succeeded in Porter Colloquium coordination by Teresia Bush, a lecturer in art history at Howard, and this year Bush provided extensive assistance to HU art faculty member Jacqueline Carmichael who was the lead coordinator of the 2015 colloquium. 

 John Trevino (left), Cameron Van Patterson, Tosha Grantham, Hank Willis Thomas and Tuliza Fleming at party for 2008 colloquium participants at Bennie and Kera Johnson’s house. Photo: Bennie Johnson

Floyd Coleman and more recently Everett, Bush and Carmichael have pushed mighty hard to keep the Porter Colloquium going over a quarter century. Other Howard University art department faculty have pitched in to supplement their efforts.  

Curator Naomi Beckwith at 2012 Colloquium. Photo: Porter Colloquium collectionThe strong personal as well as professional commitment to the colloquium demonstrated by younger art faculty members such as Carmichael, Olivia Drake and Melanee Harvey augurs well for the future of the event.  — ed.

The 26th Porter Colloquium: Sheroes and Womanists

The 26th Annual James A. Porter Colloquium on African American Art and Art of the African Diaspora was held April 10 and 11, 2015.  Its theme was  “Sheroes and Womanists: An Examination of Feminist(s) Subjectivity in Modern and Contemporary African American Art.”

Anthony McEachern, chair, Department of Art, Howard University at 2015 Colloquium. Photo: Harold BurkeAfter a welcome by Howard University Department of Art chair, Anthony McEachern, the colloquium moderator, Camille Giraud Akeju, director of the Anacostia Community Museum made introductory remarks. 

Leslie King-Hammond, graduate dean emerita and founding director, the Center for Race and Culture, Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, presented the opening lecture, "Reflection and Revelation: Four Generations of African American Women Sculptors.”

Lowery Sims presenting keynote lecture at 2015 Colloquium. Photo: Harold BurkeLowery Stokes Sims, chief curator emerita at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York City, followed with her keynote lecture, "Lois Mailou Jones: Design Pioneer,” in which she shared intriguing, unpublished research about the renowned artist. 

Lisa Farrington, chair of art and music and professor of art history at John Jay College, City University of New York, presented "The New Black Feminism: Black Women Artists in the 21st Century", an examination of black feminist art as it moves forward and into the future. 

 Presenters at 2015 Porter Colloquium: art historians (l-r) Lowery Stokes Sims, Leslie King-Hammond and Lisa Farrington.  Photo: Harold BurkeDay one ended at dusk with a reception and exhibition opening of local African American artists whose work explores subjects and perspectives around feminist identity.  The exhibition at DC’s Flashpoint Gallery was coordinated by Tim Davis, founder and director of International Visions Gallery, Washington, D.C.,  and curated by students Breeonna Hill of Howard University and Kourtney Riley of George Mason University.

James Early with presenter Jennifer Jordan and panel moderator Michelle Wilkinson. Photo: Harold BurkeDay two of the Colloquium began with a tribute to artist and art historian Tritobia Hayes Benjamin who transitioned on June 21, 2014 after an extended illness. As the associate dean of Howard’s Division of Fine Arts, Tritobia Benjamin had been closely associated with the Colloquium. 

James Counts Early, former director of Cultural Heritage Policy for the Center for Folk Life and Cultural Heritage at the Smithsonian Institution, moderated the overall day-two session.

Presenters at 2015 Porter Colloquium: scholars (l-r), Earnestine Jenkins, Janelle Pryor-Blackmon, Melanee Harvey, Jennifer Jordan, S.K. Brooks and Michelle Joan Wilkerson.  Photo from video by Harold BurkeA panel of scholars — Earnestine Jenkins, professor of art history, University of Memphis; Janelle Blackmon-Pryor, lecturer, art history, Howard University; Melanee Harvey, doctoral candidate, Boston University & Lecturer, Howard University; Jennifer Jordan, professor of English, Howard University, and  S.J. Brooks, doctoral candidate, Boston University  —discussed their current research. Jenkins: “The Photographic Archive of Dr. Georgia Patton: Medical Missionary to Liberia.”  Blackmon-Pryor: “‘Living On My Shadow’: Interpreting Photographic Representations of Sojourner Truth.”  Harvey: “Burden of Proof: Situating the Posey-Ringgold-Wallace Tradition in a Black Feminist Art Landscape.”  Jordan: "Womanism: Intersections of Gender, Race and Class."  Brooks: “Tasting the Sugar: Kara Walker’s A Subtlety." Michelle Joan Wilkinson, curator, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture moderated this panel.

2015 award recipient Andrea Barnwell-Brownlee (left) and Gwendolyn Everett, associate dean, Howard University Divison of Fine Arts. Photo: John Body2015 award recipient, artist Lorraine O’Grady (right) with Maureen Bunyan, co-anchor, WJLA-DC. Photo: John BodyThe James A. Porter Distinguished Lecture was "Afrofemcentrism Now” presented by Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art. 

Following Brownlee was interdisciplinary visual artist Lorraine O’Grady who discussed her past and current art work. 

Award presenter Melanee Harvey, Howard University lecturer and colloquium program co-coordinator (left) and 2015 award recipient Juliette Harris, IRAAA.  Photo: John BodyThe afternoon concluded with a presentation “Seeing” Without Amnesia: Sheroes in Modern and Contemporary African-American Art and Art History” by Freida High W. Tesfagiorgis, Evjue-Bascom Emerita Professor of African and African-American Art History, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

The finale of the colloquium, the Benefit Awards Gala, was held that evening in Howard University’s Blackburn Center.  The program included a silent auction of art works by prominent D.C. artists, entertainment, dining and the presentation of awards to the 2015 honorees: Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art; Lorraine O’ Grady, artist, New York City; and Juliette Harris, editor emerita of the International Review of African American Art and currently a consulting editor of the journal.

Olivia Drake, Ph.D., lecturer, Electronic Studio, Howard University Department of Art


Many of the persons cited in this article have academic and professional doctoral degrees however the IRAAA style is not to cite degrees in the body of the text for reasons that include consistency of usage and the lack of staff to assist with research and detail checking.

 The First Decade of James A. Porter Colloquium

Teresia Bush at 2008 colloquium. She has been involved in the support and coordination of the colloquium for many years.Inaugural Colloquium, March 31, 1990

Contemporary Trends and Issues, April 7, 1991

Contemporary Trends and Issues 11, April 10-11, 1992

Out of Invisibility: Interpreting and Redefining African American Expressions in the Crafts, April 1993

Postmodernism, Deconstruction, Multiculturalism and African American Art, April 22-23, 1994

Reading Between the Lines: Issues in African American Art and Art Historiography, April 21-22, 1995

Jacqueline Carmichael, Porter Colloquium executive coordinator, center with members of the Howard University Jazz Ensemble Trio which performed at the Gala. Photo: John BodyMemory, Remembering and Visual Narration: Seven Decades of African American Art, April 1-2, 1996

Recent Research in African American Art, April 18-19, 1997

Re-Examining Art and Culture of the 1960s, April 16-18, 1998

African American Art and Spirituality, April 15-17, 1999 
Washington DC dentist and art collector Dianne Whitfield-Locke (center), a long-time, staunch supporter of the colloquium. She is shown here at the 2015 gala with Curlee Holton (left) and David Driskell. Photo: John Body