by Cesca Janece Waterfield
The paintings of P. Muzi Branch Philip reflect his love for African American culture and the often difficult merging of people brought together by the Diaspora; what Muzi calls, “that ugly beautiful story.” The 55-year old artist received both his BFA and Master’s of Art Education from Virginia Commonwealth University. He’s taught in Richmond Public Schools, at the College of William & Mary, Virginia Union, and Virginia State Universities. Today he directs Cultural Programs for the VCU Health System and speaks avidly about the importance of art to personal and cultural healing.
The son of James Sr. and Beulah Turner, Muzi was a precocious student and skipped the second grade. Throughout school, his primary outlet was music, and he played drums in the school band. He also drew, strongly encouraged by his mother, who purchased his art work for a quarter. “That would get me to the corner store to get a bag of potato chips and a soda,” he remembers. By his senior year at Maggie Walker High School, he had enough credits for graduation, so he took his first visual arts classes. He married at the age of 17, and had three children soon after, Michelle, Ashiki, and Jamal. A songwriter and bass player, Muzi performs with his brother, Plunky. He works out of 312 Gallery in Jackson Ward, in a studio where books possess almost as prominent a place as his invigorating work. For nearly forty years, Muzi Branch has been a participant and observer of Richmond arts.
What do you think of the arts scene in Richmond?
I’ve seen it have its ebb and flow. The community here is very strong. The African American art community is not as strongly connected. I’m not saying there aren’t strong artists. But we haven’t had a coalition of African American artists. We’ve attempted to make those kinds of connections. Usually there’s strength in numbers. The arts scene here is strong, but it’s still fractional. You have the VCU School, and you have those who are untrained artists. Then you have the hobbyists. It’s a vibrant community at all levels. But we’ve never really had a coalition of [black] artists.
Is networking different among black artists?
Yes, because organization is still a problem in the community. Our largest organization is the church, and then you have the social organizations or social clubs, the fraternities, sororities, the Masons. But I don’t know that we have what I call “guilds” in the black community. We just don’t have that structure.
What is standing in the way of that?
I think that we have tried to form artist coalitions. The musicians have done it stronger than the visual artists, and I think that’s because society has embraced African American music more than [our] visual art. African American music is called American music. As we progressed, as we developed as a country, it became the music of America. [Black] artists are going to have a hard time doing that because of the images that it shows. Usually it speaks to what our experience has been in America, and that picture is not always pretty. Even though we are part of the fabric of America, one of the threads that holds it together, that has helped make America what it is, when we paint it and express it, and try to tell that story, just like European art is telling its story, it’s not a pretty picture to look at. When we make reproductions of what was going on with Jim Crow and segregation, [we] have a hard time looking at those images. That’s why I say it’s going to be harder for our visual art to become mainstream than the music. That imagery that we create is still not shown in museums in quantity.
How important then are art museums associated with HBCUs?
HBCU’s have always been the keepers of our intellect and our history. Those university museums will trace African American history and art. There have been “epochs” in African American art that they trace. It’s a good thing that they do because it is not recorded in what I would call mainstream museums. You will find that when [most museums] trace the history of African art, they stop when Africans came here, sort of like we became this whole new culture.
Do you think art education helps youth with intellectual development?
For sure, it does. We have learning styles just as we have teaching styles. They’re culture-based, I believe. Arts help us in the school system because there are different kinds of geniuses. It’s like developing a whole self.
What artists do you admire?
William T. Williams. Murray DePillars was the Dean of the [VCU] School of Arts. He kept me in school. He kept me coming back. If I were to look at a world stage, I love Mark Rothko. I like the surrealists. I did like Dali and what statements he was making. Sam Gilliam, Charles Wright. Even Norman Rockwell, I know folks consider him illustration, but what he did was comment on America. I wanted to do that in an Afro-centric way.
How did your own style develop?
I did abstract expressionism until 1995. Then I had one of those life-changing moments. I said, ‘I should be painting about my culture.’ Not that abstract expressionism is not African American culture. But we need more images that can be in these museums that when African American kids come, they will see themselves, and then have some kinship with that institution. When they see very few images of themselves, they don’t feel welcome.
Is there a well-defined “African American” art form?
That’s why I’m intentionally making African American art now, because my statement is there is a distinct visual voice of African American people. A white artist could paint it and it would still be African American art. Art is based in imagery more than technique. I don’t talk about “race” the way I talk about “culture,” because there is something that I believe is African American culture, that we – being separated from Africa – developed based in music and creativity. Both of these cultures grew up side-by-side but separate. We borrow from each other and then it’s hard to recognize who is the true originator of something. We still have that fight about who really invented jazz. In order for us to join America, we have to then give our culture to America and say it’s American, and not “African American.” We are put in with what they call 20th century art. African American art should have its own gallery to tell the story of African American people, to tell that ugly beautiful story in a gallery that you could come into and learn that story.
by Cesca Janece Waterfield