Pictured: “Let’s Dance” by Wilbert Fobbs
By Veronica Maria Brown-Comegys
Painting is unpredictable. It is an adventure. However, regulations abound. Nevertheless, nationally known African-American artist Wilbert Fobbs says, “I intentionally challenge myself to break a major painting rule.”
An old formula mandates that a major subject not be in the middle or corner of a painting. However, Fobbs says, “I’ve done that. I intentionally take on a challenge.” The artist attracts potential mentees. He advises each the same way. Fobbs says, “Draw, draw, and draw. Draw every day.” Usually, they do not return.
Undoubtedly, motivation is the key. Some artists have a high failure rate. Fobbs recalls his most difficult work, which took over two years to complete. He changed the piece a number of times. The watercolor painting entitled “Dancing at Night in Togo,” depicts 50 figures performing tribal dancing.
“I almost gave up,” Fobbs says. He explained that altering a watercolor painting is difficult because the artist must avoid “overworking” the scene, which will result in a muddy look and a lack of freshness. Fobbs says, “Everything is a challenge. Something you think is easy may end up being difficult. Something you think is difficult may be easy. You must enjoy the process. You are not enjoying art unless you are enjoying the process.”
International painting trips generate inspiration. Prior to an excursion in West Africa, there were less intense colors and brightness in his paintings. “Afterward, I made a vow to use pure color sometimes, instead of toning down the color,” Fobbs says. Consequently, following the jaunt to Togo, Benin, the Ivory Coast, Senegal and Gambia, he produced the award-winning “Togolese Fabric Market,” and “Togolese Women Cutting Pineapples.” The painting of the fabric trade won a first place in painting award at an annual Michigan Painting and Sculpture Competition. The other painting won an honorable mention. On the other hand, another painting, “Proud Father,” stimulated conversations among black men regarding fatherhood after Essence magazine featured it in a fashion catalogue.
On November 28, 2015, the New York Times reported that, “After decades of spotty acquisitions and token exhibitions, American museums are including African-American artists in their collections.” Fobbs’ response was, “They are acknowledging that American art collections are not complete without African-American art.” The recognition of the art by people of color is hindered by the fact that “we see art through European eyes,” according to Fobbs. He says this indoctrination supports institutionalized racism, and it is apparent in art and in decisions regarding who gets their writing published. Fobbs says, “Bias serves to close off people of color from the commercial art world. An African stool or canoe is a work of art. In some parts of Africa, art does not hang on walls. Frequently, African art was utilitarian.” The Detroit Institute of Art displays African spoons and ceremonial masks. On the other hand, historically European art represented wealth and luxury.
Furthermore, Eurocentrism extends into the classroom. The painter recalled a “Music Appreciation” class, which presented Mozart and Beethoven, not African drumming or Turkish music. In addition, another class featured a 554-page art book in which 500 pages were devoted to European art. Moreover, in the past, white painters did not feature black people in a central location. “We were usually in a corner,” Fobbs says. “Now a number of whites find that brown flesh harmonizes very well with other colors, and provides better contrast against a light background.”
Fobbs began drawing and painting during his childhood in Detroit. However, he faced obstacles, which high school art teachers created. “They just babysat,” Fobbs says, “They did not instruct.” One teacher even refused to provide a recommendation for intense instruction at the Detroit Institute of Art. “I went behind her back and asked my counselor,” Fobbs recalls, “I went in through the back door.”
For more information log on to http://wilbertfobbs.com/
Veronica Maria Brown-Comegys is a graduate of the Michigan State University School of Journalism. She is a former newspaper reporter. In addition, Veronica wrote freelance articles for United Press International while studying in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. An Inter-American Press Association Scholarship and her mother, Ann Brown, funded her studies. Veronica is an anthropology aficionado and studied graduate-level classes in the Michigan State University Department of Anthropology for four years. Currently, she is revising a manuscript about life with her white host family, and gender and racial inequality in Brazil. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was printed in the December 27, 2015 - January 9, 2016.