Two Burchfield Penney Exhibitions Amplify the Legacy of James G. Pappas and Black Arts in Buffalo

Pictured above from left: Curatorial Associate Tiffany Gaines, artist James Pappas, and Tullis Johnson, Burchfield Penney manager of exhibitions during opening night.

The artwork of highly respected artist James G. Pappas, and his visionary leadership as a co-founder of the Langston Hughes Center are the subject of two new exhibitions at the Burchfield Penney Art Center.

The exhibit “James G. Pappas: Relative to Music,” spans his prolific career. Pappas’s abstract expressionist style pulls strong influence from his love of jazz music, while contending with the socio-political realities of American life for Black communities. Like jazz, his work is a lasting testament to experimentation, innovation, and improvisation, breaking the mold to imagine new possibilities. 

The second exhibit, “Founders,”  explores the early history of the Langston Hughes Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, which Pappas founded with fellow artists Allie Anderson, Clarence Scott, Wilhelmina Godfrey, and Hal Franklin. Opening at its 25 High St. location in 1971, the arts center offered an expansive range of workshops, exhibitions, performances, and lectures. Providing access to the arts and technical training, its organizers championed social change.

While the pandemic stalled planning for a Pappas solo exhibition, it opened the doors to something far greater. “During earlier discussions we talked about the photograph of five of the six artists showcased in the 1968 exhibition ‘Six from the City.’ Pappas

Five of the Six Caption: Featured image in the Founders exhibition of the artists, the photograph initiated early discussions with Pappas to learn more around the founding of the Langston Hughes Center for the Visual and Performing Arts. (Credit: DK Weinbrenner, Five of the Six: James Pappas, Allie Anderson, Clarence Scott, Hal Franklin, Wilhelmina Godfrey. Missing is Donald Watkins, 1968; photograph on paper; Image courtesy of the Burchfield Penney Art Center Archives)

explained the importance of each person and their involvement in the formation of the Langston Hughes Center in the early 1970s,” said Tullis Johnson, Burchfield Penney manager of exhibitions. “After looking for information about the center online, it became clear that this story needed to be shared more broadly, even more so because of the parallels between that time in American history and today,” he said. 

Co-curators Tiffany Gaines and Tullis Johnson, with assistance from archivist Heather Gring, embarked on an extensive research journey. Locating lost archival materials, documentation, and building relationships with community members, they mapped the history of the center which extends beyond the City of Buffalo. The Challenger Community News also helped connect the dots. “We learned how these artists were so committed to creating a space to uplift and empower communities. Their ideas and action fulfilled needs, laying a blueprint for the next generation of cultural changemakers,” said Tiffany Gaines, Burchfield Penney curatorial and digital content associate. 

 “So much of this history is at risk of being lost and underlines the importance of archiving and documenting this important work, particularly in marginalized communities,” noted Gaines. “The exhibition is an unprecedented opportunity to give Pappas, a longtime friend of the Burchfield Penney, and the leaders of the center well-deserved recognition and interpret their stories to larger audiences.” 

“Founders,” focused on the center from 1968-1975, only begins to scratch the surface of its history within the cultural landscape of the region. “The accomplishments of that early iteration of the center and its founders, would only begin to tell the story we wanted to share. With plans to focus on some of the other founders, teaching artists and friends in exhibitions and programs, our hope is to eventually tell a larger story that our community can be proud of,” said Johnson.

“This is the beginning, an introduction to a significant history with many more layers to unpack and Black artists to recognize going forward,” said Gaines.  

“James G. Pappas: Relative to Music”  and “Founders” are on view through May 1, 2022. Go to burchfieldpenney.org for more info