Adger Cowans (b. 1936) was one of the first African American students to earn a degree in Photography from Ohio University in 1958, and furthered his education at the School of Motion Picture Arts and School of Visual Arts in New York City. Following graduation, Cowans obtained a position assisting photographer Gordon Parks at LIFE Magazine. Cowans later served in the United States Navy in Virginia Beach, VA and continued to work as a photographer. Cowans also has a storied career in cinema as a film still photographer on over thirty Hollywood sets, and worked with directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet, and Spike Lee.
One of the most poignant moments in Cowans’s career occurred while living and working in New York City during the early 1960s. Cowans was recruited by James Ray Francis to become a founding member of The Kamoinge Workshop, and along with Louis Draper, would be the only members with a formal education in the arts. Kamoinge, translating to “group effort” from the language of the Kikuyu people of Kenya, sought to present the Black community with dignity and positivity, which was antithetical to the stereotypical portrayal by the media.
For Cowans, the paramount elements of photography, and art at large, are heart and feeling. Cowans describes the act of photographing as such: “When I take a picture, I feel it. When you get that rush of feeling inside of you of ‘I have it. I felt it’.” Communication of spirit and emotion are essential to Cowans’s practice, and a close second is the ability to capture light and shadow. Two exemplary images of this exploration are Icarus, 1970 and Three Shadows, 1968. Icarus depicts the blazing sun, and small human figure at the bottom of the frame, perhaps falling with melting wings of wax. Three Shadows shows three young girls walking down a sidewalk in the Bronx with their long shadows stretched out in front of them. The ritual act of taking a photograph as a kind of spiritual practice is also important to Cowans, and when that is combined with the technical aspect of understanding of the qualities of light, that sacred space is where pictures become art.
Becoming disenchanted with the commercial side of photography, Cowans focused his personal practice in nature, specifically the study of water and reflections. Capturing water allowed Cowans to further explore his love of light and shadow in a more abstract and meditative way. These water studies served a twofold purpose for Cowans: First, they provided the artist with a spirit connection via art, and second, they lead Cowans to painting.
By the end of the 1960s, after a formative trip to Brazil to photograph the Djuka people in Suriname, Cowans returned to New York City with a passion for his burgeoning painting practice. Deeply rooted in Abstract Expressionism, Cowans’s early works are defined not by the use of brushes, but rather more experimental methods such as by his use of combs and custom made beveled glass squeegees to create sweeping patterns that give the works a fluid sense of motion. The “comb paintings” are directly influenced by Cowans’s photographs of water, the artist’s desire to use paint as the subject as opposed to creating an image of something else using paint. Cowans cites Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso, and Wifredo Lam as influences, and points to a group of Contemporary artists of the time including Jack Whitten, Peter Bradley, Daniel Johnson, Bill Hutson, and Edward Clark as fellow painters who all drew inspiration from one another. Cowans had an exhibition at Cinque Gallery, a space dedicated to showing work by established and new African-American artists, and would be become close friends with gallery founder and artist Romare Bearden who asked Cowans to teach him photography. Bearden would later contribute to the publication Adger Cowans, Personal Vision, published by Glitterati, a monograph spanning fifty years of Cowans’s career.
In 1979, Cowans became a member of the highly influential African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA), which was founded in Chicago in 1968 to define a “Black aesthetic”, and use identity and style as tools to promote solidarity among the African diaspora. Cowans’s work stood out due his interest in abstraction, as opposed to the more figurative work by other members. He still is a member today.
Work by Cowans has been exhibited at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, International Museum of Photography, Museum of Modern Art, The Studio Museum of Harlem, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Harvard Fine Art Museum, Detroit Art Institute, James E. Lewis Museum and numerous other art institutions. Additionally, Cowans’s work is part of many notable collections, including The National Museum of African-American History and Culture, Detroit Institute of Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art among others. Cowans’s work is included in Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963 – 1983 organized by Tate Modern and shown at the Brooklyn Museum, New York; the de Young Museum, San Francisco; the Broad, Los Angeles; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Cowans’s photographs are also currently part of the exhibition Working Together: The Photographers of Kamoinge Workshop at the Whitney Museum of American Art. This exhibition was orgranized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 2019, and will travel to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and Cincinnati Art Museum. Cowans lives and works in Bridgeport, CT.
Courtesy of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts