Georgia Museum of Art gala honors Leo Twiggs

Thursday, February 28, 2019

On February 22, the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia held its annual Black History Month Dinner and Awards Celebration. Leo Twiggs received the Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Award for his efforts as an artist. This award is given annually to honor an African American artist who has made significant but often lesser-known contributions to the visual arts tradition in Georgia. It is named for the couple who donated 100 works by African American artists from their collection to the museum and endowed a curatorial position there (held by Shawnya L. Harris) to focus on art by African American and African diasporic artists.

Twiggs studied art at Claflin College, the Art Institute of Chicago and New York University. In 1970, he became the first African American student to receive a doctorate of arts in art education from the University of Georgia. Twiggs went on to create the first fine arts degree program at South Carolina State University. In many of his works, he uses the wax-resist process of dyeing textiles called batik. His use of the Confederate flag serves as an evocative symbol of systemic racism in the South, and he continues to address social issues in his art, as with a recent series focusing on the murders at Mother Emanuel Church, in Charleston, South Carolina. A prolific artist, he has had work featured in 75 solo shows, one of which was held at the museum in 2004.

Accepting the award, Twiggs spoke about the event as a homecoming of sorts for him. He said, “When I came here [to the University of Georgia] at the height of the civil rights movement, Lamar Dodd, chair of the art department, told me, ‘We don’t think of you as a student. We think of you as a colleague.” He continued, quoting the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the “Negro national anthem”: “Art is a journey, but ours is a unique journey because: ‘We have come over a way that with tears has been watered. We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.’ James Baldwin said that ‘the purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.’ To that end, I have never looked away.”

Camille Billops, who was unable to attend the ceremony, received a lifetime achievement award (presented by Brenda Thompson) for her work in ceramic sculpture, archival material and filmmaking. She attended California State University and obtained her master of fine arts degree from City College of New York in 1975. Her sculptures offer a unique perspective on critical challenges in contemporary society like racism, sexism and xenophobia. Billops and her husband founded the Hatch-Billops collection, which contains oral histories, books, slides, photographs and other historical material on African American history. They also produced several award-winning documentaries, including “Suzanne, Suzanne” and “Finding Christa.”

Athenian Lemuel “Life” LaRoche received the Lillian C. Lynch Citation. This award goes to an African American leader who has contributed to cultural education. Ms. Lynch, who died in 2010, was a charter member of the Athens chapter of The Links, Incorporated, a national volunteer service organization for African American women that focuses on the arts as one of its five key areas of service. Lynch was a devoted and strong advocate for cultural education and the arts in the Athens community.

LaRoche is the founder of Chess and Community, a nonprofit youth empowerment organization with the motto “think before you move.” He encouraged at-risk youth to use the problem-solving skills they learned from playing chess when making decisions in their lives and within their community. Chess and Community challenges students to become strategic thinkers and leaders in their communities. LaRoche is also an adjunct instructor in the School of Social Work at the University of Georgia and has written two books: “Tree of Life: The Human Ascension” and “Hidden Ripples: Life’s Unspoken Language.”

Stepping up to the podium, LaRoche quoted two African proverbs: “It takes a village to raise a child” and “A child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.” Taking them as a starting point, he said that the Athens community must come together and act as a village in order for the next generation to succeed. Chess, for him, is a way to get students interested, then focus on expanding their perspectives, taking them out of their usual environments and comfort zones and developing skills like entrepreneurship and debate.

Previous recipients of the Thompson award include artists Larry M. Walker, Emma Amos, Harold Rittenberry, Charles Pinckney and Amalia Amaki. Previous recipients of the Lynch citation include Althea Natalga Sumpter, Natasha Trethewey, Jeanne Cyriaque, Rudolph Byrd and Michael Thurmond.

Janyce Dawkins, director of UGA’s Equal Opportunity Office, served as chair of the event’s planning committee and Monica Willis-Parker as co-chair. The committee also included Linda Bigelow, Sige Burden Jr., Lacy Middlebrooks Camp, Freda Scott Giles, Cyndy Harbold, Posy Henson, Janet Patterson, Shenara Austin Sexton and Kendell Turner.

The event was sponsored by: Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson; Lacy Middlebrooks Camp and Thomas G. Camp; Lisa and Bill Douglas; Todd Emily; Morgan Stanley; UGA School of Law; Mr. and Mrs. B. Heyward Allen Jr; Jennifer and Gregory Holcomb; Libby V. and C. Van Morris; Kathy Prescott and Grady Thrasher; Kendell and Tony Turner; UGA Office of the President; Anonymous; Athens (GA) Chapter of The Links, Incorporated; Dr. Linda A. Bigelow; Sige Burden Jr; Janyce and Mark Dawkins; Helen and Howard Elkins; Bree and Richard Hayes; The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, SC; Brenda and Ham Magill; Becky and David Matheny; Marian and Carl Mullis; Janet and Alex Patterson; Beverly and Ned Phares; Mary Lillie and Ray Watson.

Museum Information

Partial support for the exhibitions and programs at the Georgia Museum of Art is provided by the Georgia Council for the Arts through the appropriations of the Georgia General Assembly. The Georgia Council for the Arts also receives support from its partner agency, the National Endowment for the Arts. Individuals, foundations and corporations provide additional museum support through their gifts to the University of Georgia Foundation. The Georgia Museum of Art is located in the Performing and Visual Arts Complex on the East Campus of the University of Georgia. The address is 90 Carlton Street, University of Georgia, Athens, Ga. 30602-1502. For more information, including hours, see or call 706-542-4662.