Houston Conwill

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Houston Conwill
Houston Conwill '74.jpg
Houston Conwill in 1974, Washington D.C.
Born(1947-04-02)April 2, 1947
DiedNovember 14, 2016(2016-11-14) (aged 69)
Alma materHoward University
University of Southern California
Years active1971–2016

Houston Eugene Conwill (April 2, 1947 – November 14, 2016) was an American multidisciplinary artist known best for large-scale public sculptural installations. Conwill was a sculptor, painter, and performance and conceptual artist whose site-specific works explore and celebrate spirituality and African-American artists, activists, and intellectuals.[1] Studio Museum in Harlem recognised his body of work as a "lasting monument to black culture."[2]

Early life and career[edit]

Houston Eugene Conwill was born on April 2, 1947, in Louisville, Kentucky, to Mary Luella Herndon, an educator, and Giles Adolph Conwill, a waiter. He was the third of their six children. His father died when he was a child and his maternal grandmother (Estella Houston, who he was named for) played an important role in his upbringing. Conwill was raised Catholic, his mother a teacher and administrator at a predominantly black parochial school. His sister Estella Conwill Majozo is an author, poet, and professor. At least one of his brothers, Giles Conwill, went on to join the priesthood. For a time, in his late teens, Conwill lived in a monastery in St. Meinrad, Indiana. He joined the Air Force in 1966 where he served three years until the fall of 1970 when he enrolled in Howard University's Art Department. During his time at Howard, Conwill worked with Sam Gilliam, Lois Mailou Jones, and Skunder Boghossian, and took in the displays of traditional African art exhibited in Howard's gallery. It was here, and in his first student exhibition in 1971, that Conwill started making works with canvases stretched over pyramid shapes, a motif that would recur throughout his artistic career.[3] Conwill graduated from Howard in 1973 and moved with his wife, fellow Howard art school graduate Kinshasha Holman Conwill, to California. Houston pursued his master's degree from University of Southern California[4] and Kinshasha worked at curator of Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House, where they lived for two years.[3]

Personal life[edit]

Conwill married Karen Holman (also known as Kinshasha Holman Conwill) in a Ghanaian ceremony at Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington D.C. in 1971.[5] Conwill died on November 14, 2016, of prostate cancer.

Significant works[edit]

In 1989, Conwill produced an installation piece for the Museum of Modern Art's series, Projects, called The Cakewalk Humanifesto: A Cultural Libation. An etched-glass frame, reminiscent of the rose window at Chartres, was etched with words and maps, projecting patterns on to the marble floor of the gallery. The piece also featured a table on which rested a book of letters, written by his sister, Estella. Readings of the letters were a component of the exhibition.[6]

Perhaps Conwill's most prominent work is his terrazzo and brass floor design at the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Unveiled in February 1992, the floor honors poet Langston Hughes whose ashes are buried in a book-shaped urn within the design. The work is called Rivers, in reference to Hughes's poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers", and includes visual elements from Yoruba, Haitian voodou, and Christian traditions. Conwill again collaborated with his sister, Estella, as well as architect Joseph De Pace.[7]

ARC Houston Conwill - African Brass in concrete, shadow tracks circles in pavement beneath

In 1986 Arc, a large scale installation, was created by Conwill for the 160th Street entrance to the York College, CUNY campus.[8] Arc has a 26-foot span, it is composed of metals, commonly known as "African brass", embedded in concrete. It is covered by inlays of various symbols rising out of the surface created by arc spraying, a technique in which an electric arc melts metal wires onto the surface. Arc is oxidized to a teal green color, similar to New York City's Statue of Liberty. The piece includes three inlaid metal circles embedded in nearby concrete pavements. Each circle has one word repeated twice in capital letters. ‘MEMORY’ is placed beneath the arch, followed by ‘VISION’ a few stairs over and then and few steps away is ‘IMAGINATION’. Each circle is divided into four equal sections with inlaid lines reminiscent of Yowa,[9] the Kongo cosmogram for the continuity of human life through reincarnation. Many symbols are used by Africans to represent the retention of their culture in the United States of America. Depending on the time of day and the sun’s position, Arc's shadow moves over the metal circles in the ground surrounding it. Conwill's work is the permanent collections of Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and the Studio Museum in Harlem.[10]

List of selected works[edit]

Selected exhibitions[edit]

  • 1976 JuJu, The Gallery, Los Angeles.
  • 1980 Passages: Earth/Space H3, Nexus Gallery, Atlanta.
  • 1981 Easter Shout!, PS1, New York.
  • 1982 Afro-American Abstraction, Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, Los Angeles.[18]
  • 1986 Houston Conwill: The Passion of St. Matthew—Painting and Sculpture, Alternative Museum, New York.
  • 1990 Houston Conwill: Project Series, Museum of Modern Art, New York.
  • 1990 Hirshhorn WORKS 89: Daniel Buren, Buster Simpson, Houston Conwill, Matt Mullican / Sidney Lawrence, Ned Rifkin, and Phyllis Rosenzweig, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
  • 1990 The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980s, New Museum of Contemporary Art, Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, and Studio Museum in Harlem, New York.
  • 2013 Now Dig This! Art and Black, Los Angeles 1960–1980, MOMA PS1, New York.[19]

Awards and honours[edit]


  1. ^ "Notable Kentucky African Americans Database". University of Kentucky Libraries. Retrieved December 14, 2014.
  2. ^ "Remembering Houston Conwill". Studio Museum in Harlem. Retrieved March 20, 2018.
  3. ^ a b Jeffries, Rosalind Robinson (1992). Arthur Carraway and Houston Conwill: ethnicity and re-Africanization in American art. Yale University.
  4. ^ "Projects: Houston Conwill". Museum of Modern Art. November 1989.
  5. ^ "Gerri Major's Society World". Jet. January 20, 1972.
  6. ^ Larson, Kay (December 4, 1989). "Corn King". New York Magazine.
  7. ^ "Mythologies". The New Yorker. February 2, 1992. Retrieved February 19, 2015.
  8. ^ "Arc, by Houston Conwill". web.york.cuny.edu. Retrieved March 19, 2018.
  9. ^ "YOWA - Continuity of Human Life - African Burial Ground National Monument (U.S. National Park Service)". www.nps.gov. Retrieved December 12, 2017.
  10. ^ "Houston Conwill (1947–2016)". www.artforum.com. Retrieved March 20, 2018.
  11. ^ "MTA - Arts & Design | NYCT Permanent Art". web.mta.info. Retrieved March 19, 2018.
  12. ^ "Transit Agency Creates Art Havens in Subways". Retrieved March 19, 2018.
  13. ^ "Open Secret (Houston Conwill)". www.nycsubway.org. Retrieved March 20, 2018.
  14. ^ "Sculpture "Poets Rise" exterior of Joseph P. Addabbo Federal Building, Jamaica, Queens, New York". The Library of Congress. Retrieved March 19, 2018.
  15. ^ "City of Chicago :: Harold Washington Library". www.cityofchicago.org. Retrieved March 19, 2018.
  16. ^ Services, Miami-Dade County Online. "Art en Route - Miami-Dade County". www.miamidade.gov. Retrieved March 20, 2018.
  17. ^ "Architectural art "The New Ring Shout" at Ted Weiss Federal Building, New York, New York". The Library of Congress. Retrieved March 19, 2018.
  18. ^ "Afro-American Abstraction | MoMA". The Museum of Modern Art. Retrieved March 19, 2018.
  19. ^ "Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980 | MoMA". The Museum of Modern Art. Retrieved March 19, 2018.
  20. ^ Buie, Linda (2008). "Houston Conwill Arc, 1986 – Metals and Concrete, span 26 feet". York College, City University of New York. Archived from the original on April 19, 2013. Retrieved December 14, 2014.
  21. ^ "Houston Conwill | Now Dig This! digital archive | Hammer Museum". Hammer Museum. Retrieved March 19, 2018.