Chandler’s Early Life, Art, and Activism
Called “controversial,” a “Black Power Artist,” “activist artist” and “Outsider Artist,” Professor Emeritus Dana C. Chandler, Jr (Akin Duro), 77, was born in 1941 in Lynn, MA. Educated in Boston Public Schools, where he won his first accolades as an artist in grade school, he has been fighting for social justice and human rights since his teens using his most powerful tool—his art.
He was an award-winning artist as early as his junior year in high school, where he won national Scholastic Art Awards for all four years as well as Boston Technical High School’s First Annual Art Award in 1959.
After working for his one of his high school mentors for two years after graduation, Gunnar Munnick, and a brief time for the Retina Foundation in Boston, Chandler won a place at the prestigious public institution, the Massachusetts College of Art, from which he graduated in 1967 with a B.S. in Teacher Education.
Chandler began his activism in high school in the black integrationist movement. At that time, he was part of the NAACP, The New England Federation of Temple Youth, where he was an honorary member, and The New England Conference of Christians and Jews.
In his early 20s, his activism shifted to anti-poverty work. He became a community organizer helping poor African Americans living in slum conditions confront racism in Boston government as they tried to force officials to improve conditions in Boston’s public housing. Then, Chandler graduated from MassArt right into the fomenting black nationalist movement driven by the repeated violence against nonviolent protesters to racist oppression.
Chandler’s Long Hot Summer of 1967 Epiphany
The violent actions against African Americans by law enforcement just as the summer dawned on America in 1967 led to racial revolt and uprisings across the country. Boston, where Chandler, a 26-year-old married father of four little girls lived in public housing with his young family, wasn’t different. African Americans were tired of living in under police occupation and white racist oppression in artistic, tenement-filled communities rife with poverty and anti-black aggression.
A brutal altercation on June 4, 1967, shortly before his MassArt graduation during which Boston police beat welfare protesters, some of them pregnant, would change this young artist’s life permanently. Chandler, an ardent and already well-known community activist, became a strident revolutionary. However, for Chandler, his art, not physical force, sit-ins or eloquent speeches, became his form of protest.
Out of that determination came seminal pieces like “Fred Hampton’s Door II,” a protest piece created from an actual door and representing the bullet-riddled, blood-stained bedroom door police shot through during their brutal police massacre of the sleeping, 21-year-old Black Panther, Fred Hampton; “Black Man Break Free…”, the sinewy, ebony, clenched-fisted black arm bursting through the white egg of racist oppression, and “SaKKKrificial Dance,” the artist’s interpretation of Matisse’s famous “Le Danse” 1 (1909).
Matisse’s famous piece celebrates his appreciation of dance in the cultures of color he’d visited in the years before its creation. Chandler’s work, in stark contrast but no less masterfully, protests the Ku Klux Klan’s horrifying history of lynching, castrating and burning black men. In some cases, they danced gleefully around the murdered’s corpses as if in celebration of their atrocity.
It is this powerful protest art the artist created in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s for which he is most well-renowned. He continued to produce strong images evocative of painful historical events into the early 21st century. He has long considered creating this art his calling, a God-given mission. His images are no less compelling than the stories of warfare against evil chronicled in the Old Testament of the Bible.
The violent deaths of African Americans, especially men, aren’t unlike the brutal New Testament crucifixion of Christ on trees shaped into a cross. However, the black people executed by lynching from a tree by similarly hateful men won’t rise from the dead. Modern lynching is by gunfire and other means but still no less targeted than was the execution of Jesus or the assassinations of Medgar (Evers), Malcolm (X) or Martin (Luther King).
The Activist Artist Becomes an Activist Professor
Chandler graduated from MassArt then worked as an instructor in the Model Cities Program consortium colleges in Boston for several years. He continued his community activism, lecturing and exhibiting nationally. He also produced multiple pieces of protest art and image series that celebrated and supported the African American experience in America. Those series included the “Black on Black for Black” reproduction series and the “Urban Weaponry Series.”
He also produced pieces that excoriated African Americans who participated in their destruction with drugs and violence like “That’s No Way to Study, Brother/Sister.” Through his work, he encouraged African Americans to pursue positive social and political action through education and hard work through murals like “Knowledge is Power” and “The Black Worker.”
Chandler as a famed artist by 1970, when he was speaking internationally. National magazines including Time, Jet, Newsweek, and Encore featured the young artist and the Boston NAACP named him Man of the Year. But, Chandler’s tenure at Model Cities ended in late 1970, and he needed a regular source of income to support his young family, which included five children by then.
He decided to pursue his dream of being a college professor in a setting where he could reach young people of various races, like those that sat in his classrooms at MassArt. In Spring 1971, Chandler accepted a position as assistant professor at Simmons College in Boston where he taught until he retired from his full-tenured professorship in May 2004.
Chandler, who says he loved teaching from his first day to his last, had been hired to teach drawing and painting at Simmons. But he had no desire to teach those subjects from a Eurocentric perspective or in isolation from his own experience as an African-American person or artist. As one of its earliest teachers and proponents, he taught Africancentrism in the context of art and his art began to reflect that aesthetic.
Since, in 1971, there was no formal, commercially available black art curriculum, he used his research to create and teach this innovative curriculum. He based it on the truths of the African and African American experience that countermanded the revisionist historical perspectives. The white male-centered revisionist narrative nearly eliminated the experiences of women and people of color in the construction of “history” or, what Chandler calls, the “wumanstory.”
Using Personal Crisis to Transform the Art World
In 1973, Chandler’s South End studio was ransacked and destroyed, along with any art and art supplies that weren’t stolen. Chandler saw the experience as an opportunity rather than a personal disaster.
That opportunity came in the form of an empty warehouse on the Northeastern University campus he’d been passing on his way to Simmons each workday. He would turn that space into a program that would change his art career and the art world.
He first convinced University officials, including the then-president, Kenneth Ryder, that having an African American artist in residence on their campus would benefit the institution. When he did, the University outfitted the space for his use an 8,000 square foot studio.
The artist’s studio, on the second floor of 11 Leon St. in Roxbury, was a portion of the 32,000 sq ft that was vacant and in Chandler’s mind, available. He experienced the positive effect using the space had on him as an artist and by allowing the community to use the space for events. Because of that, a vision of an artist and community space began to form in his mind.
In November 1978, with the help of Ryder and city officials, that concept became a reality, opening as the African American Master Artist-in-Residence Program (AAMARP). The new program launched with 13 artists in residence and featured an enormous gallery and community space.
Chandler, who had been ardently supported by Ryder, directed the program until he was ousted from his role when the University’s administration changed after Ryder’s retirement.
But the Program earned world renown as artists from around the country and the world, of all races at every level of experience from children to master artists, exhibited in AAMARP’s gallery space.
Artists occupying the program’s ten studio were required to be open to the public. That meant area students of all ages visited regularly. Dignitaries from every level of government, from local to international, were guests in their studios and attended AAMARP’s events. It wasn’t unusual to see famous performing artists, athletes, and luminaries attending exhibitions or events or being entertained as guests in Professor Chandler’s or another artist’s studio.
Most artist-in-residence programs limited the time an artist could occupy studio space at an institution. But, once accepted at AAMARP, the studio spaces artists held were theirs for an indefinite period and also were among the largest anywhere. Moreover, in the early years of the program, artists received financial support from the University for their endeavors.
While running AAMARP, Chandler continued to travel, lecture and exhibit worldwide. He taught at Simmons and accepted teaching residencies at other institutions. Most importantly, the “Prolific Professor” as he came to be known, produced increasingly masterful and controversial, message-oriented art.
To date, his works have been exhibited in over 1,000 exhibitions in museums, galleries, community spaces and government buildings worldwide. They continue to garner international attention and grow in significance.
Revolutionary Becomes Evolutionary
In the 1990’s, the artist, then in his 50s, remained an ever-evolving, edgy, activist artist. He had been making bold, colorful artistic statements with his work for over 30 years by then. His work always reflected the times he was in and this phase, the transition from revolutionary to evolutionary was no different.
Chandler began creating what he called “collage reprographics.” These black and white collages created from reproduced images from print publications, books, and other sources, depicted the history of wars, holocaust, enslavement, and violence against peoples of color and women in cultures around the world.
These new works were entirely different from any he’d ever done and got criticized as inconsistent with the artist’s known work. These graphic pieces merely reflected the new direction the artist took as the world changed and he matured. The pieces showed that wars, holocausts, slavery and other human atrocities were ongoing, prolific and repeated.
That barbarism was occurring outside the traditional understanding of the Jewish holocaust and African slavery during those years in countries like Bosnia, Iraq, and Sudan (and they continue today, in countries worldwide). Chandler’s reprographics also reflect the rape culture that (primarily) men perpetrate against women and children globally.
His works mean to show that no group is immune to either victimizing or being victimized by another group and all have, at one time in history, played one or the other role.
Addressing the Connection Between Desire for Opulence and Global Oppression
As the 21st century dawned on an America growing in wealth, status, and materialism, Chandler’s art evolved again. America had become a service-oriented, knowledge-based, high-tech economy whose industry chiefs exported most of the country’s manufacturing jobs to “third world” countries around the globe.
He began creating large-scale installations that reflected both the historical and contemporary exploitation of cultures of color to meet American’s nearly insatiable demand for consumables. That process, Chandler explained to visitors to his installation, allows corporatists to retain high profits by exploiting low-wage cultures to produce goods for American consumers.
Chandler began creating and filling his studio and museum galleries with these installations—large spaces packed floor to ceiling with household furnishings organized into recognizable living areas. They were complete with the electronics, accessories, jewelry, and artwork as well as artifacts and images representing cultures worldwide. They were the furnishings found in many middle-class homes in America.
The art used in installations was his and usually those pieces that depicted other pervasive human atrocities occurring throughout the history of humankind.
The installations were meant to reflect the inextricable link between war and its resulting holocausts, slavery and human cruelty. That savagery has included the rape, pillaging, and plundering of the attacked cultures and the theft of those cultures’ resources, goods, and artifacts.
Once conquered, the people of these cultures virtually became enslaved by corrupt governments raised to power after these wars, often with the cooperation of their conquerors. They were then not only exploited in low-wage work creating consumables for the West; those goods frequently used the resources expropriated from the local land by their conquerors in their production.
He was particularly interested in showing that it is men of all “racial” backgrounds who have perpetrated these atrocities and exploitation on the world’s women, children, aged and infirm.
Chandler’s message in these installations is that we live in our comfortable homes, often bloated with our booty from endless pursuit of the material acquisition of mostly imported goods (and now, services). However, our voracious consumption comes at a high cost. Most of those who produce our products have, throughout history and continuing today, subsisted at levels that make many of America’s impoverished appear wealthy by comparison.
These installations are consistent with Chandler’s long history of creating imagery that forces the viewer to rethink their perceptions of reality. His art compels the observer to change the way they relate to the world around them after having experienced a Chandler art show.
Chandler’s Redefining Work Remains Relevant Today
Chandler’s art and its blatant messages have gained significant historical meaning. But, his art remains as relevant today in the age of almost daily murders of black people by law enforcement. That’s especially true given the rabid racist ideas promulgated by Donald Trump and his supporters during his 2016 presidential campaign. These ideas have been perpetuated consistently since his election.
Trump’s administration, which includes racist ideologues Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, has codified racism into federal policies that deliberately harm African Americans and other people of color. They’ve also upended the entire Obama presidential legacy by reversing or eliminating any policies that potentially benefit African Americans and Latinx mainly but all people of color.
The battle against white supremacy escalated in just the first six months of this racist presidency, and few can deny the virulence of that racism, particularly with early administration advisors like radical racists Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller, who continues to be a force in the Trump administration. It has led to ever more aggressive policies and a Supreme Court ruling upholding a racist Trump immigration ban against Muslims.
Chandler’s work now comes to mind frequently as America revisits it’s racist history real time. His art has redefined “fine art” permanently, taking it from art completed by exclusively by white men which also is most pleasing to the eye to that which is at once masterful and more inclusive of the perspectives of people of color. It has helped change American race and gender history and relations by forcing us to face ourselves around issues of oppression against people of color and women.
Collectors and Exhibitors See Value in Chandler Works
By their purchases, private collectors have recognized his art for over 40 years as the significant investment-grade pieces by an important outsider artist that they are. Those collectors include activist, David Glass of Lynn, MA and journalist, Kay Bourne of Boston. Wilberforce University owns a seminal work as do several museums, including the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, MA and Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, MA.
Chandler and his work have been featured in over 40 books, numerous consumer magazines, and scholarly journal articles internationally, and educators consistently include his art and activism in curricula in art and courses at educational institutions worldwide. His oral history is part of Smithsonian archives, and his papers are in college and university libraries nationally, including at Simmons College and Northeastern University.
In July 2017, his seminal work, “Fred Hampton’s Door II,” became part of Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at the Tate Modern in London, UK. The show features 160 pieces by 54 globally-renowned black artists and represents the largest single show of African American artists in history. Its opening drew crowds larger than many blockbuster movies.
His art is available for other exhibitions and sale to significant collectors and museums.
Chandler Continues to Share His Wisdom, Experience
Because at 77, he continues to evolve, his messages reflect his journey, which now includes exploring Christianity and, in recent years, becoming a great-grandfather. As his career resurges because of interest in his art driven by defining political events and its appearance in a significant exhibition in the last two years, Chandler is pursuing new artistic endeavors. That includes repurposing his collage reprographic series from the late 1990s and early 2000s.
That makes him a still engaging, provocative speaker and media interview subject or source. He can speak and lecture brilliantly about the historical relevance of his art and his activism to the worldwide struggle for race and gender equality. His commentary also can bridge the generation gap that is confounding this country’s leadership and America during this “internationalist” phase of this country’s evolution.
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