BAIA BITS: Benny Andrews
“Actually, in my case, racism was just one of the many problems I had. I had a class problem, too, you see. My family was probably one of the poorest…”
These are the words of 20th century artist, Benny Andrews, son of a sharecropper. Andrews grew up in a poor family in rural Georgia where he spent long days helping his father in the field. Even so, his dad taught him to draw, and when he could make it to school, the capable young artist would draw biology and plane geometry projects for his teachers. Later, after serving in the Korean War and becoming a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Andrews moved to New York and started a painting practice, specializing in oil and collage.
Upon his first solo exhibition in 1962 at New York’s Forum Gallery, Andrews’ reputation grew as a talented and socially conscious artist. Dedicated to not just making art but integrating it with activism, he ran art education programs for underserved students through Queens College and established a pilot program for teaching art in prisons. In January 1969, after a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit omitted the contributions of African American painters and sculptors to the Harlem community, Andrews cofounded the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, a group demanding increased representation for people of color in art museums and the historical canon.
Andrews would continue to be socially active and promote art education while teaching at Queens College through the 1990s. Late in life, he illustrated numerous children’s books on such African American icons as Langston Hughes and John Lewis. In 2013, seven years after Andrews’ death, Lewis remembered the extraordinary artist in the foreword to the exhibition catalog, Benny Andrews: There Must Be a Heaven:
“For Benny there was no line where his activism ended, and his art began,” offered Lewis. ”To him, using his brush and his pen to capture the essence and spirit of his time was as much an act of protest as sitting-in or sitting-down was for me. I can see him now: thinking, speaking, articulating what needs to be done and in the next few moments trying to make real what he had been contemplating. He was honest to a fault, and I think it was his determination to speak the plain truth that shaped his demand for justice and social integrity. He never aligned with any political group, but would offer the full weight of his support to anyone he thought was standing for truth.”
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