When James Phillips saw his acrylic painting on canvas “Sankofa II” (1997-8) installed at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), the Baltimore artist and associate art professor at Howard University crossed his arms and carefully inspected it.
Melanee Harvey, an art history Ph.D. candidate who accompanied Phillips on his NMAAHC visit, said she wondered what he was looking for. And Phillips told her, “I’m just making sure I got my lines right.”
The anecdote, from an essay by Harvey that appears in the catalog for UMUC’s exhibit “James Phillips: Swirling Complexity into Culture,” reveals the artist behind this collection of complex works, which draw upon musical scores and African symbolism.
“Even with an artwork almost 20 years old, the artist maintains an eye for precision in his design sensibility,” Harvey wrote. “As we walked through the gallery, there seemed to be a sense that Phillips had made a place for himself at the table of African-American master artists.”
In his catalog commentary, UMUC President Javier Miyares noted the artist’s “vibrant colors and complex patterns,” which show the richness of his experiences as an African-American artist.
“We are truly fortunate to host his work and—in keeping with our mission of expanding education opportunities in Maryland and beyond—we are proud to introduce his work to more diverse audiences and encourage them to recognize themselves in his work,” Miyares wrote.
UMUC Arts Program Director Eric Key, who first met the artist 10 years ago, said he has been aware of Phillips’ work for nearly three decades. He describes Phillips as quiet and mild-mannered, but also “the kind of person that can glide right through the room.”
“He’s not the one who is going to yell at you,” Key said. “At the football game, he’s not going to be the loudest person out there. He’s going to be the person who is watching and observing.”
Phillips’ attention to detail infuses his works with multiple layers of meaning. “Unless you have knowledge of African symbols, sometimes you will miss it in the work,” Key said. “You have to take it layer by layer to see what’s really hidden in there.”
The compositions also seem to pulsate with musical beats, which isn’t surprising given the impact jazz has had on the artist. “Most of the time, he is listening to some kind of jazz,” Key said. “Music is a heavy influence in his painting.”
Key said that although he isn’t an expert musicologist, he is moved by the “sound” generated by Phillips’ paintings and that Phillips’ works appeal to viewers who aren’t necessarily “music people” as well.
“It’s the feel of the piece,” he said. “You [may not] know what the note is, of it’s an A or an A-sharp, but the sound is what’s causing the reaction. It makes you want to tap your feet or move your body.”
That feeling might help visitors invest the extra time it takes to engage with the nuances of Phillips’ works, particularly in an era commonly associated with shorter attention spans. “We are in an age when we want it and we want it quick,” Key said. “You have to clear your mind to see what’s under and what the intent is.”
Phillips’ work requires that viewers slow down and “listen” to his colorful and energetic compositions. “It’s the kind of work that you have to walk by, stop and spend time [with] and then continue,” Key said.