The mural impetus came to fruition at Howard under the leadership of Jeff Donaldson, Ph.D., the artist and scholar who joined the Department of Fine Arts in 1969. Donaldson had been a major participant three years earlier in creating the Wall of Respect in Chicago, the work widely credited with sparking the contemporary public mural cycle. In 1973 James Phillips, a Brooklyn-born artist who had participated in the Afri-Cobra group that gave rise to the Chicago work, joined Howard’s Department of Fine Arts , along with visiting artist Hughie Lee-Smith. The two organized a class dubbed “Social Painting,” and Phillips began work on Homeland, an acrylic-on-wood piece affixed to the wall of Howard’s Cramton Auditorium with masonite.
Phillips’s mural, as the title implies, harks back to the “homeland” of West Africa, the birthplace of the slaves who were forced to emigrate to the Americas. The artist has drawn inspiration throughout his career from the abstract patterning and vibrant colors characteristic of traditional African art. As in many of Phillips’s paintings, it is difficult to distinguish the background from the subjects. In the upper right, an arm wielding a spear evokes native African life; a giraffe and serpents, classic African fauna, are also embedded in the highly complex figuring. In African art, the serpent is often the repository of ancestors; the giraffe is associated with flexibility, intuitiveness, and the ability to know the past and the future while remaining in the present. Thus, the painting honors both the birthplace and the continuing possibility of black life and culture.
James Phillips’s paintings have been exhibited throughout the country and internationally. His works are in the collections of Hampton University and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture Arts and Artifacts in New York, and his commissions include an acclaimed public installation at the Philadelphia Airport. He continues to paint and teach art at Howard University.