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Cliff Joseph, artist, activist and therapist, dies at 98

Cliff Joseph, a Harlem-raised artist who in the 1960s and 1970s led protests against major New York museums to advocate for the inclusion of black artists, and who then pioneered the practice of multiculturalism in the field of art therapy, passed away on November 21. 8 in a Chicago hospital. He was 98 years old.

His wife, Ann Joseph, confirmed the death.

In 1963, Mr. Joseph, whose paintings depicted the social unrest sweeping the nation, was struggling as an artist in New York City. He was in Washington in August, standing in front of the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

“I was so moved by this experience and what it told me about how I should use my artistic skills,” Mr. Joseph said in a 2006 documentary, “Conversations With Cliff Joseph”. “It really woke me up.

Mr. Joseph and a group of other artists founded the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, which began to campaign for the inclusion of African American artists in New York City museums.

When the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened the “Harlem on My Mind” exhibit in 1969, their cause gained attention. The exhibit, which documented Harlem culture and history, did not include any paintings or sculptures by black artists. Mr. Joseph and his fellow activists picketed outside the museum for days with signs that read: “Harlem on Whose Mind?”

Their voices were heard.

Mayor John V. Lindsay criticized the exhibit. The New York State Division of Human Rights denounced her. And Met curator Thomas Hoving has issued a rare public apology.

In 1971, the Whitney Museum of American Art opened an exhibition entitled “Contemporary Black Artists in America”. The coalition criticized the museum for assigning a white curator to the project.

“It is essential,” Mr. Joseph said in a statement, “that he be chosen by someone whose wisdom, strength and depth of sensitivity regarding black art is drawn from the well of his own black experience. . “

Whitney director John IH Baur told media: “The coalition represents a kind of separatism in which I do not believe.”

Fifteen black artists, including sculptor Richard Hunt and painter Sam Gilliam, withdrew from the exhibition on the day it opened. Soon after, the group staged a protest exhibition, “Rebuttal to Whitney Museum Exhibition,” at Acts of Art, a black-owned gallery in Greenwich Village.

After the inmate uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York in 1971, the group lobbied for the implementation of art programs for prisoners, and Mr. Joseph sent a letter to the Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller.

“Those who are at the head of the oppressive system know well the power of art and fear it in the hands of the people,” he wrote. “This is why power structures throughout human history have sought to suppress and control the creative artist.”

In the same year, their arts program, often taught by coalition artists, was implemented in tombs in Lower Manhattan and then extended to correctional facilities across the country.

In his forties, Mr. Joseph entered the field of mental health in art therapy, helping to introduce concepts like racial sensitivity and cultural competence to the profession.

He taught art therapy at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn for 11 years and worked at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. He was the first black member of the American Art Therapy Association and became president of the New York Art Therapy Association in 1981.

In the 2006 documentary, Mr. Joseph reflected on his contributions to multiculturalism in his field.

“It’s not that a person has to be black to take care of black patients,” he said. “But if a white person comes to deal with a group of black people, that person should know that a culture specific approach must be used.”

Otherwise, he continued, “they won’t understand where you came from, and you won’t understand where they came from, and nothing will happen.

Clifford Ricardo Joseph was born June 23, 1922 in Panama City into a large Caribbean family. Her father, Samuel, worked on the construction of the Panama Canal and her mother, Léontine (Ellis) Joseph, was a chambermaid. When she was 18 months old, her family moved to Harlem.

Cliff’s older brother, Freddy, aspired to be a police officer; the same day he was admitted to the academy, he was shot and killed by a man in his apartment building. To support his family, Mr. Joseph enlisted in the military as a teenager. He then served overseas in a field artillery unit.

After World War II, Mr. Joseph studied at Pratt on the GI Bill, earning a BFA in 1952. While working at a wellness center, he met Ann Voggenthaler, whom he married in the middle. from the 1960s.

A few years after watching the March on Washington with his wife and hearing Dr King speak, Mr Joseph sent Dr King Christmas cards he had designed in honor of the young girls killed in the bombing. Ku Klux Klan against a church in Birmingham, Ala., In 1963. Dr. King sent a letter to Mr. Joseph’s East Village apartment.

“I was deeply impressed and very grateful for your generous gesture,” he wrote. “It was particularly gratifying because I have always felt, since I saw it for the first time, that your art expressed the meaning and the sacrifice of our struggle.

In the 1960s, Mr. Joseph helped care for psychiatric patients at Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx, where he befriended Edith Kramer, a prominent art therapist. Ms Kramer invited him to watch her work with children in the hospital and Mr Joseph was moved by what he witnessed. She then took him to the first meetings of the American Art Therapy Association.

“I walked into this room with all these people and saw no one I could recognize as being of my race,” Mr. Joseph said in 2006. “I felt there was a certain politeness. when I was introduced, but I didn’t feel like I was greeted.

The American Art Therapy Association presented Mr. Joseph with an award in 2008, recognizing his commitment to social activism in this area. It was also featured in a documentary, “The Wheels of Diversity in Art Therapy: The Pioneers of Color,” which featured several therapists who introduced a multicultural perspective.

In 2001, after living for years in the rent-regulated Westbeth Artists Housing complex in the West Village, Mr. Joseph and his wife moved to Chicago, where they later joined the neighborhood protest against a coke storage facility in oil in the southeast owned Koch Brothers. Mr. Joseph has also written a science fiction novel, “Revelation Number 10: The Call of a Galactic Neighbor”.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Joseph is survived by two children from a previous marriage, Clifford Jr. and Leonette Joseph; one brother, Ronald; and three grandchildren. A daughter, Zuri Joseph, died in 2013.

In 2018, Hunter College New York revisited “Rebuttal to Whitney Museum Exhibition” with an event in its campus gallery. The exhibition repeated works from the original 1971 exhibition, including one of Mr. Joseph’s oil paintings, “The Superman”.

This painting shows an inflated Klansman holding a gun and a cross standing in front of a Confederate flag. But he is naked, wearing his white robe over his arm, and Mr. Joseph has made him spectral and desperate.

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