Artist, teacher, critic, and curator, Keith Morrison is also a philosophical optimist. Beyond the ideological tensions between African and European values that he and others wrestle with, Morrison anticipates a genuine world culture in the twenty-first century.
In Zombie Jamboree [SAAM, 1990.76], a super-natural ritual reflects the voodoun religion’s blend of African and Christian beliefs and ceremonies as it tests the very nature of life and death.
As phantasmagorical as Zombie Jamboree appears, it is a highly structured work in which the syncopation of color, shadow, line, and mass is as important as its imagery derived from diverse sources. Jamaican-born Morrison has conjured his memories of elderly people telling African stories about evil spirits emerging from ponds at dusk, while also recalling the drowning of a close family friend. Inspirational also was Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Benjamin Britten’s opera, The Turn of the Screw, in which ghosts dance across a pond. From this ambitious mélange of references emerges a forceful synthesis of visual narrative and cultural metaphor.
Lynda Roscoe Hartigan African-American Art: 19th and 20th-Century Selections (brochure. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art)
“I wrestle with ideological tensions between African and European values in my work (as I do as a person). I have resigned myself to this continual ideological conflict in myself, because I believe that it reflects an issue which is preliminary to the amalgamation of cultures which will bring about a true world culture of ideas in the Twenty First Century.” Alternative Museum, Keith Morrison: Recent Painting (New York: Athens Printing Company, 1990), 3.
As a child, Keith Morrison drew and painted constantly and dreamed of becoming an artist. Born in Jamaica, Morrison was profoundly influenced by African and Caribbean cultures—influences that were later manifested in his art.
Before graduating from high school in Jamaica, Morrison applied to a number of art schools in Great Britain and the United States. Although he initially wanted to study in Italy, his family wanted him to study in England. A compromise was reached, and Morrison came to the United States. He enrolled in the School of The Art Institute of Chicago where he studied between 1959 and 1965, and earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art.
After receiving his master’s degree, Morrison taught in the public schools of Gary, Indiana. Two years later, Morrison began his career as a university professor, and since that time has taught at Fisk University, DePaul University, the University of Illinois, the University of Chicago, the University of Maryland, Maryland Institute, College of Art, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Since 1988, he has served as chairman of the art department at the University of Maryland.
While at the Art Institute’s school, Morrison received a thorough background in abstract expressionism, and was probably most influenced by the hard-edged abstract paintings of Ellsworth Kelly. Shortly thereafter, Morrison produced his first series of paintings—large, black-and-white, hard-edged abstractions. Although these works were well received and highly acclaimed, they did not satisfy his inner longing to create paintings that more specifically reflected the rich and colorful culture of his homeland. In general, Morrison’s black-and-white canvases were generally conventional abstract expressionist works. To the artist, however, they were works of black pride, and an identification with the struggles of African Americans during the civil rights movementof the 1960s. Although Morrison grew up in comfortable middle class circumstances in Jamaica and did not come to the United States until he was seventeen, he experienced racial and professional discrimination following his arrival in this country.
Around 1975, Morrison abandoned hisabstract expressionist style and began to create figural paintings treating African and Caribbean themes. He did not exhibit any of these paintings until the early 1980s. Since that time, Morrison has produced primarily figural works featuring themes that deal with his dual cultural background. His subjects depict lush tropical foliage and colors, and real and imaginary animals and masked dancers. These symbolic paintings vibrate with energy and are haunting in their enigmatic imagery. His subjects are drawn from stories he heard as a child, and the superstitions and voodoo ceremonies of his native environment. Other paintings are celebratory, and reminiscent of theAfro-Caribbean festivals so prominent in that culture. In these works themes of life, death, and rebirth abound.
In addition to his painting and teaching activities, Morrison is a printmaker, writer, critic, and curator. He has organized a number of important exhibitions, and is the author of the well-known exhibition catalogue, Art in Washington and its Afro-American Presence:1940–1970.
Morrison has always been fascinated by ponds at dusk, from which evil spirits emerge according to legend. In Zombie Jamboree, the figure wearing white was based in part on Hamlet’s tragic heroine Ophelia, and in part by that powerful evocation of nature, Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The image of ghosts dancing across a pond in Benjamin Britten’s opera, The Turn of the Screw, also influenced this painting, Morrison has said. The enigmatic floating figure recalls an event from the artist’s childhood. An adult friend of the Morrison family was drowned—or committed suicide—in a pond at dusk, and this event has left an indelible imprint on the artist. In addition, the rising mummified figure is symbolic of death and resurrection, and is an image that appears in several of his works of the same period.
Morrison’s African heritage can be seen in the upper section of the painting in which small dancing figures wearing African masks are joined by a skeletal form. These figures reinforce the voodoo themes of the work, which celebrate both the agony of death and the joy of resurrection.
Regenia A. Perry Free within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art in Association with Pomegranate Art Books, 1992)
Keith Morrison was born in Jamaica and moved to the United States to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. As a student, he was influenced by the work of abstract expressionist artists such as Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko. By 1975, however, Morrison abandoned abstract work in favor of figural paintings inspired by African and Caribbean culture. During this time his paintings often depicted brightly colored tropical scenes with a variety of real and imagined creatures. He drew his subjects from memories of childhood stories, superstitions, and ceremonies from his Afro-Caribbean background. More recently Morrison’s paintings express his investigations into the histories of art, music, and slavery. His paintings can be complex studies of different ethnographic cultures and the visual signs shared between them. Morrison is an art critic, educator, and curator, as well as an artist, and currently serves as dean of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia. (Perry, Free within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art in association with Pomegranate, 1992)