Me saying “I didn’t create this space to share personal experiences” is starting to sound a lot like a lead on the Bachelor saying “I don’t reward drama.” Then again American culture generally also sounds a lot like the Bachelor franchise being like “we really want to embrace diversity!” and then giving all the screen time to mediocre white bullies. So that really tracks.
Today, I want to talk about how contemporary artists have addressed the absence of Blackness in modern museums. Later this month, I want to write more broadly about representations of African Americans in American art and historical Black artists. Then, after February is over, I’ll continue to highlight and feature Black artists!!!!!! As with our Native American Month resource round-up, it’s worth noting that access to the Internet and independent creators is benefitting the cultural conversation. Museums and galleries no longer hold all the power. We can hop on Instagram or TikTok and be exposed to new artists. Kids have the ability to see creators in real time instead of just learning about Black History Month at school. The tone appears to have shifted from “this is the one and only month where we talk about Black historical figures” to “this is the month we get to go off and celebrate black creators, scholars, politicians, all of it, and go hard.” This is the first Black History Month since George Floyd and the ensuing protests, and it feels like an opportunity to celebrate Black joy. All the more reason to dedicate a shout-out to the artists who have shrewdly and masterfully navigated the art world and helped to move the needle.
It’s no secret that part of my story as a museum employee and general museum enthusiast is growing up in a town with an American art museum that was prevalent in my life, from attending after-school programs, taking youth art classes, having a grandparent as a docent, experiencing my first unpaid internship and eventually working there. Some of these experiences were great, some were bad, but the museum’s collection had a lasting impact on my life. Here are two artworks I saw regularly:
The painting on the left is by a (white) woman artist from the 19th century of regal-looking dark-skinned man. The one on the right is by a Black artist from the 19th century of a still life of luscious peonies. Not only do we have women and Black artists represented on the walls of the museum, but the subject matter isn’t defined by stereotypes. Most importantly, finding an historic solo portrait of a strong, contemporary African face is no small feat. Because of Moorish Prince, myself and tens of thousands of other school-age children didn’t face the typical blow of not seeing ourselves/people we grew up around on the museum walls.
Broadly speaking, most Black faces in historical art fade into the background. They function as another signifier of a domestic scene, much like Native American bodies signify an “untamed wilderness,” or women might signify luxury. The Musee D’Orsay investigated Black models in European painting in a 2019 exhibition, “Black Models: Gericault to Matisse.” Glenn Ligon created an accompanying neon installation called “Some Black Parisians,” underscoring the importance of enlightening anonymous Black identities throughout art history.
Another pairing of images from the museum of my formative years masterfully demonstrates how museums can acknowledge, and ask viewers to reconsider, absent or unsatisfactory depictions of Black people from our visual history.
Earl’s portrait of a gentleman, like many portraits of the 18th and 19th century, features a Black figure who serves to elevate the white one. The gentleman appears relaxed, his face full of personality and his clothing rich. The young man, by contrast, barely looks three-dimensional. Rather than a discernible personality his face display only deference and obedience as he waits for the gentleman to look his way. He almost fades into the dark background. Kaphar appropriates and updates the image for a 21st century audience by removing the face and hand of the gentleman, rendering his whiteness invisible. The young Black figure has been given a personality and attention to detail in place of the white gentleman. Without changing the composition – other than cutting holes in the canvas – Kaphar rewrites the narrative. Kaphar intends the artworks to be hung next to each other. The Earl portrait is from the Colonial period, so if the museum is organized chronologically and the works are hung together, this is one of the first things the visitor sees. This sets the tone for the museum visit. It’s a drip. It asserts immediately that Black Americans have a presence in this space and asks the visitor to reconsider that presence throughout American history. How did we get from Earl to Kaphar? What historical events and individuals led us there? Remember of course that it’s only a flex if followed up by more representation of diverse artists throughout the rest of the galleries, but nonetheless this is a perfect example of how Black artists and art museums can collaborate to change the narrative.
As a museum educator and interpreter, I can tell you that pieces like Jaavon and the Unknown Gentleman are works of art that every visitor wants to hear about as a tour. Those are artworks that we can build entire programs and school programs around. Not only build school tours around, but offer programs with depth that will attract schools that have never visited before. These works of art provide in roads to new audiences and programs worthy of grant funding. To not invest in diverse artists that engage with complex histories is a kiss of death for museums. It’s kind of like that time that an all-black superhero movie came out and utterly demolished the box offices. It’s almost like people are tired of the same old white stories?
African Americans have deep, deep roots in what is now the United States. The concept that we haven’t always taught Black history alongside “regular” (??) American history is so mind boggling that it seems like – wasn’t it harder to write textbooks that left it out?? Anyway, African American and African history are a both/and of deep and rich sources of iconography, language, social traditions, and wells of strength as well as pain. We do have canonical artists in American art history who are Black – Jacob Lawrence, Aaron Douglas, Faith Ringgold, Basquiat. Still, seeing Black artists on the walls of an art museum is not a given and was even less so a few decades ago. Artists like Dean Mitchell (b. 1957) and Mickalene Thomas (b. 1971), have spoken about not encountering the work of Black artists until their 20’s. Mitchell says that when he first visited museums in his college years he couldn’t see Black artists’ contributions to the world being valued. Artists of this generation have chosen to force the art world to make Blackness visible. They demonstrate, as Kaphar did in Jaavon, a deep understanding of art-world conventions and of art history to create a framework for a uniquely American art.
Quite a few of the Black artists currently in the public eye focus on portraiture in order to recapitulate the importance of representation. Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald became household names when they painted the portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, respectively, drawing on their signature styles to create regal depictions of the former POTUS and FLOTUS.
While Sherald and Wiley have different styles and different objectives, there are some shared elements that tailor their work to changing the tone of museum representation. Both artists usually work in a large scale, and their figures are life-size. Both artists are masterful with color. Wiley wields color aggressively, creating busy, almost dizzying backgrounds rife with symbolism. (Shout out to Wiley for speaking openly about how the backgrounds are mostly executed by his studio assistants.) Sherald doles out color economically in unexpected pastels, saturated brights and splashes of pattern. Wiley plays to the ego of the art world by drawing on familiar tropes of European art, such as portraits of Napoleon and Renaissance groupings. Sherald plays with the tension between abstraction and representation, typically setting her portraits against a single field of color. While Wiley’s style uses the history of art to reposition Black people in powerful compositions, Sherald’s figures are allowed to just be. They don’t stand for anything – as Sherald says, they’re not “teaching anything.”
As someone who does not belong to these communities, I can’t speak for them – and it is difficult to make assertions about BIPOC art and experiences being “quintessentially American,” since these communities have suffered so much at the hands of “America.” I don’t know that I want to shackle “America” to that identity. But if you want to talk “American dream” and folks taking their own stories into their own hands, Black artists have taken charge of their own representation, infused their myriad cultural influences into their practices and created something distinct and yet individual. Some, like Sherald, create space for Black people to simply exist as humans. Others, like Kaphar, use history to reach through time and keep the past present. Others, like Kerry James Marshall and Bisa Butler, create rich, bright spaces for Black history and culture to flourish. Some of these artists use brown tones to demonstrate Blackness, others choose to signify blackness without skin color.
The art world still has a long way to go before recognizing Black art as a unique and distinctly American entity (because it prefers to think of everything as being the first and newest all the time, remember). However, just as the generation of artists born in the 50’s-70’s forced the art world to pay attention, scholars of art born in the 70’s-90’s are putting the pieces together and moving the conversation forwards. In fact, Museum Drip is not the place to really learn about Black artists – there is so much to consume on this topic, and a small but woefully incomplete resource list at the end of this article. As far as museum drips go, as this is the first Black History Month since George Floyd, you hope to see a sea change that ensures that the DEAI teams that have formed and insisted on more diversity in exhibitions and acquisitions endure. Museums today claim they are being “priced out” of the market for contemporary Black artists, or even historic Black artists. What will that look like in 5 years? (And more importantly, to those museums scrambling to acquire work by Black artists for the first time….why’d you sleep on em when you could afford them?)
With more artists and scholars moving in to the playing field, it feels true to say that we won’t go too far backwards and that the recognition of Black art as American art is here to stay. If museums and critics forget, they can revisit these excellent 2004 and 2010 quotes by Kerry James Marshall:
In an essay Marshall wrote for the Krannert Art Museum in 2004, “Bill Traylor, William Edmondson and the Modernist Impulse,” also reprinted here, he excoriates white art critics and museums for embracing and celebrating black folk artists while ignoring or offering only lukewarm approval for academically trained black artists including Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff, Elizabeth Catlett, and Lois Mailou Jones, whom he refers to as “masters all in the African American canon.” In another 2010 essay on Chris Ofili, Marshall complains of not seeing anywhere in contemporary museums an Ofili, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, Kehinde Wiley, or Mickalene Thomas: “Ain’t these some quality artists? Somebody tell me what’s up with that shit.” And he is right. While many of these artists now have far more museum presence, the critical framing of their work has yet to challenge canonical assumptions.https://hyperallergic.com/353553/resituating-kerry-james-marshall-in-a-black-radical-tradition/
Woefully Incomplete Resource Round Up:
- Book: Black Futures, by Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/553674/black-futures-by-edited-by-kimberly-drew–jenna-wortham/
- TV Special: Black Art: In the Absence of Light: Premieres on HBO on Tuesday, February 9th https://www.hbo.com/documentaries/black-art-in-the-absence-of-light
- Instagram Account: Black Art Library https://www.instagram.com/blackartlibrary/?hl=en
- Museum: The Studio Museum in Harlem https://studiomuseum.org/?gclid=Cj0KCQiAvP6ABhCjARIsAH37rbRbejWshi4DH_7gkNPB6EHIpCQeDATZgVgP48lNXZR6lb3U5zwEgGMaAp2fEALw_wcB
- Multi-faceted Website/Arts Company: Black Art in America https://www.blackartinamerica.com/