Hampton Institute, William Sheppard’s Kuba Collection, and African American Art
This chapter considers the significant influence of William Sheppard on U.S. visual culture. In 1890, soon after he arrived in the Congo, he expresses his intent to collect Congolese artifacts, mostly Bakuba, for Hampton’s “Curiosity Room,” which was the basis for its renowned art museum. In the early 1940s after Viktor Lowenfeld established the Hampton art department, John Biggers, Samella Lewis, Elizabeth Catlett, Charles White, and other artists, who were students or teachers there, studied Sheppard’s textile collection. In particular, the color palette and geometry found in Biggers’s work recall both African American quilts and Bakuba textiles, indicating that, beyond political topics, Sheppard’s influence includes a wide aesthetic vocabulary. Twentieth-century African American visual artists developed an innovative cultural practice based on their immersion in a collection whose provenance links it to the movement for reform in the Congo.
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