Casper Banjo (1937 – 2008) An Appreciation

Art Hazelwood

Casper Banjo, born in Memphis in 1937, died tragically in Oakland, California, his long time home, on March 14, 2008. The outlines of the story of Casper’s death were widely reported in local media. He was shot to death by a police rifleman at the shopping mall near his house. The police say that he was holding what turned out to be a replica gun. The details of his death may never be known.
At the very time of his death the print dealer Lee Stone as well as the curator of prints from the Library of Congress, Katherine Blood, were expressing interest in his work. Since then the Library has acquired three of his prints, an etching portrait of the artist’s mother, a lithograph and a mixed media print including Casper’s trademark brick imagery. M. Lee Stone Fine Prints is now representing the estate of Casper Banjo.
Though he was active in the art world, Casper lived quietly in an apartment in Oakland and arranged his life around his artwork. He did the majority of his work there, printing by hand, without any press, his elaborate embossed prints and mixed media work.
From his earliest prints Casper focused on texture in his artwork. Most famously he was obsessed with bricks. Once in a casual remark I said to Casper that his brick walls were about what was behind the wall. Casper’s categorical and determined reply was, “There you go.”
And I believe that is the key to understanding both Casper’s art and his life. The drama of his work and his life is the brick wall. The wall of bricks represents Casper the immovable, singular in vision and determination. It represents Casper the stoic philosopher, unmoved by passing fancies, and willing to point out injustice where he saw it.
And Casper’s brick wall was visionary. He took the most concrete of forms, a form that met him at his earliest childhood; the brick wall in Memphis, in St. Louis and in Oakland. He saw brick walls everywhere. And Casper, through his art, slowly and with determination went through that brick wall. He created a visual language of transcendence through that brick wall. The great wall, the great barrier, that Casper felt profoundly was a personal wall, but it was also an historical wall and a social wall. It was the wall of racism. It was the wall of prejudice against disability. It was the wall of personal relations. And ultimately, it was the wall of mortality.
Casper took all that he felt and put it into those walls, those bricks. And it is a curious bit of art historical reference too. Casper took this concrete form, and made it abstract. It’s almost as if he was playing some art historical joke; abstract concrete, abstract bricks.
His bricks were brick, but he studied them till they fell apart. Casper did for bricks what Mondrian did for trees. Casper made an art that was at once abstract and concrete, that was at once naïf and profound, that was at once rooted in his life experiences and referring to the artistic debates of the twentieth century.
But in addition to his brick patterns Casper explored textures in other ways. He constantly cut up old prints and then reworked them as collages in later works. All of his work fed back into whatever was his newest works. And he had print elements in all his work. In order to create his bricks he often would build up a plate out of duct tape, mat board and acrylic paint. Then laying a dampened sheet of etching paper over the plate he used an every day metal spoon to work the image and emboss the paper. Sometimes these were blank embossing and sometimes he added fresh layers of acrylic paint on his plate as he embossed to create colors.
Often the element of chance was used in the process of his work to suggest an image. Sometimes the acrylic paint transferred in this way would suggest an image that he would develop further with all manner of drawing, collaging and embossing.
His graphite drawings progressed in a similar way; utilizing chance to create a suggestion. He tore up heavy paper randomly and threw it down on the table, then he placed a fresh sheet of paper over it and by rubbing with the side of a graphite stick brought out the random shapes of the paper underneath. Then he turned the paper, and turned it again, adding drawing and erasing as he went. Most of his graphite drawings in this manner are square in format for the reason that he wanted to be able to turn it any direction and lose himself in the work.
Casper was an assistant teacher after obtaining an AA degree at Laney College in Oakland. He also received BFA ‘73 and MFA ’75 degrees from the San Francisco Art Institute. His artwork was featured in several publications including Black Artists on Art, Vol., 2 co-authored by Dr. Semella S. Lewis and Ruth G. Waddy, Los Angeles, CA; Extraordinary Art, Beyond the Museum II, Philadelphia, PA; The National Carroll Simms Black Art Catalog, African American Museum, Dallas, TX, and The International Review of African American Art, Vol., 17, Juliett Harris editor.
Some of the exhibitions he was most proud of include, Impressions/Expressions: Black American graphics, The Studio Museum in Harlem, and traveling from 1979 - 1981. Aesthetics of Graffiti, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1978. As well as a traveling exhibition put on by the Smithsonian Museum in the early 1970s called Black American Graphics.
Casper was an accomplished and sought after exhibition installer. He worked for years putting together shows at Oakland’s Center for Visual Arts. He helped San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness by teaching printmaking to homeless artists, by contributing artwork to the Street Sheet and by installing the annual art auctions. He helped the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame create prints of the hands of famous Black filmmakers. He was the master printer behind the hand stamps of everyone from Paul Robeson to Sammy Davis Jr.
Art Hazelwood