Robeson Portfolio Highlights Print Exhibitions at Arts Benicia

Freedom or Slavery: The Paul Robeson Portfolio, a set of 14 screenprints and inspirational texts published by Jos Sances and Alliance Graphics, is one of two exhibitions that opened in late July and will be on display at Arts Benicia through August 27. The portfolio, on loan from the Vallejo Center for the Arts, was created in 1998, the centennial of Robeson’s birth, to honor and re-introduce him to a national audience. Robeson was an American concert artist, actor, professional football player, and activist who was famous both for his performance and athletic accomplishments and for his political views. After becoming a popular international screen and singing star, Robeson spoke out against racism and became a world activist. He was blacklisted during the paranoia of McCarthyism in the 1950s. 

Sances, based in Berkeley, is an American printmaker and muralist, writer, activist, and community organizer.

He founded Alliance Graphics to generate support for the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA). “Some of the people from MECA were on a Paul Robeson Hundredth Birthday Committee, centered in Chicago,” recalled Sances. “I thought that he was a pretty unknown figure to a lot of people, and that maybe we could do a portfolio. Many of the artists that I work with were familiar with him and would want to contribute, so that’s kind of how it happened. All of the prints were created specifically for this project.” 

Contributing artists include Jos Sances, Elizabeth Catlett, Enrique Chagoya, Dewey Crumpler, Daniel Galvez, Mildred Howard, Rupert Garcia, Mary Lovelace O’Neal, Betye Saar, Raymond Saunders, Elly Simmons, Patricio Toro, Carlos Villa, and Miranda Bergman. Themes relating to Robeson’s activism are incorporated into several of the artists’ prints, as well as images of Robeson. Mildred Howard’s Red depicts a smiling Robeson overlaid with red and other patterned colors, invoking the accusations leveled against him regarding communism. Betye Saar’s National Racism: We Was Mostly ‘Bout Survival, depicts an African American woman enduring racism after the end of slavery.

print by Jose Sances

Jos Sances

The portfolio also includes essays by ten writers, some of whom knew Robeson, including June Jordan, Pete Seeger, and Angela Davis, and an introductory essay by Howard Levine.

print of four faces by Elizabeth Catlett

Elizabeth Catlett

“They helped us get some of the other people who we didn’t know, like Harry Belafonte and Studs Terkel,” said Sances. “Robeson was really an internationalist, and I think these pieces reflect that kind of broad view of the world.” A limited edition of 100 of the portfolios were printed.

Robeson grew up in New Jersey, son of an escaped slave. He was one of the first African American students to attend Rutgers, where he excelled at football, baseball, basketball, and track. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and was class valedictorian. He graduated from Columbia Law School but worked only briefly as an attorney. An attractive man with an excellent singing voice, Robeson went into entertainment and appeared in hundreds of plays, 11 major films and sang in thousands of concerts. He was well known for his rendition of “Old Man River’’ from Showboat.

Robeson traveled the world as part of his performing career.

As a political activist he campaigned for civil rights, labor rights, socialism, and against racism. He was investigated by the FBI and testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was later blacklisted and prevented from traveling abroad from 1950 to 1958, affecting his performing career. Nonetheless, he continued his political activities until his health declined. He died in 1976. “Looking back at this portfolio 25 years later, I still think it’s a good document,” reflected Sances, “and you know, many of the issues expressed in the prints are still with us, unfortunately.”

Also on display at Arts Benicia this month is an exhibition called California Printmakers … Tradition and Innovation, juried by master printmakers Yuzo Nakano and Kazuko Watanabe, both of Kala Art Institute in Berkeley. The exhibition highlights the best in recent California printmaking. Approximately 90 works by 40 artists are included, featuring a wide range of printmaking techniques. 

Arts Benicia is located at 1 Commandant’s Lane, in the Commanding Officer’s Quarters in the Benicia Arsenal district. The galleries are open from Thursday through Sunday, 1 to 5 pm, during exhibitions. For more information, visit

print by Betye Saar

Betye Saar

Feature image by Mildred Howard