In the mid-1960s, an artist and a poet crossed paths at an event at the South Side Community Art Center in Chicago. Murry N. DePillars and Haki Madhubuti were both finding their way as young Black artists. They found a kinship in one another, a relationship rooted in the struggle of Black Americans and in a desire to promote Black arts and culture.
“Culture defines us, it tells us who we are in relationship to ourselves and to our families and to others outside the family,” Madhubuti says. “This cultural identity gave us a sense of purpose. It gave us a sense of direction, [a reason] why we existed—he as a visual artist and I as a poet.”
The two went on to become leaders in their artforms and in education. They joined parallel arts organizations: the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) and the artists’ collective AfriCOBRA. Madhubuti commuted between Chicago and Washington, D.C., for eight years while teaching at Howard University and founded the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing at Chicago State University. DePillars went on to become dean of VCUarts and the school flourished under his leadership, becoming one of the largest arts schools in America.
They remained friends through it all, until DePillars’ death in 2008.
Here, Madhubuti reflects on DePillars’ legacy in the arts and his lasting influence on Black culture.
His influence as a Black artist
[DePillars] became one of the premier visual artists, thinkers, educators and administrators in the United States, if not the world. He was one of the first in our tradition to earn a Ph.D. in his artform, and to pursue positions of empowerment in major art universities. And that was critical for us. He was the kind of brother for whom the arts represented another level of humanity in terms of how you began to know a people through their art.
He was key in terms of the representation of Black people, not only in this country, but internationally. We were kindred spirits in trying to be sure that our art was available to the Black community and to progressive communities. I would have books published and he would have prints of his work.
I will never forget him giving that [Aunt Jemima] print to us to use as a fundraiser. I use the term “advisorly,” because he never used—nor do I use, or did we use in AfriCOBRA or OBAC—the term sacrifice. When you commit to something, that means that you’ve studied, you have knowledge, that you’re going to make a serious contribution to the development of whatever you’re committing yourself to.
His legacy in arts education
Once he came to VCU, he changed that school. He changed that institution in ways in which very few people could have, regardless of the culture. He was at the forefront, not only as a visual artist himself, but also one who analyzed art, looked at art, and supported students at every level of their maturation and development.
Our development as a people, as an artistic community, it has been stifled as a result of outside factors: politics, big money, education. What we were trying to do, in our own way, was to create our own independent Black institutions. When we went to these institutions of higher education, we tried to create within them institutional structures that allow us to tell our truths.
He came to the School of the Arts and VCU in its infancy, and he grew it. I saw the work that he was doing there and how he began to grow the institution, not just built around quote-unquote Black art, but built around the best art that America could produce among young people.
There are only [a few] other major white universities that have buildings named after former Black faculty or administrators. That’s part of why [naming the Murry N. DePillars Building] is so critical. It defines, at one level, the importance of Murry DePillars on their whole art program, in definition of itself. And it means that, certainly in Richmond, Virginia, his art will go on forever, as long as the university is there.
On artists inspiring one another
We fed off each other. If he produced a piece of new work—or even the work that I have in my own personal collection—I go back to it for inspiration.
That’s how artists work. We feed off each other. I write with the background of music and jazz, and he did the same thing. We essentially lock out that which takes away the inspiration to create.
The important part of our lives is not only the creation process—it’s sharing that process and sharing the creation with others. Part of my responsibility always is to make sure that his work stays alive, as well as the works of other people who were part of our lives.
Image: Murry DePillars in his office