Growing up, I was lucky enough to have a father who was an artist, and I have fond memories of gazing at each brushstroke that made up his vibrant paintings hung all over our house. In general, however, black artists seem to be an invisible resource. They have always been here, creating anything from paintings to sculptures with found objects, but artist narratives have always been told through a white, Eurocentric lens. The most celebrated “great artists” of the last several hundred years have mostly been white and male. In the HBO documentary, Black Art: In The Absence Of Light, artist, professor, and curator David Driskell leads us on a journey to discover contemporary Black artists and their contribution to the American art landscape.
In this in-depth film, each artist featured tells of their influences and their journey finding and creating art as an African-American. We see visionary David Driskell, who sadly passed last April, talking about his groundbreaking exhibit, “Two Centuries of Black American Art” in 1976, which opened the floodgates and created awareness for Black American artists globally. There are also veterans like Faith Ringgold, who stayed the course even though she wasn’t accepted in some circles, and Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, the two artists who painted the Obamas’ presidential portraits. It’s an engaging documentary with candid interviews and incredible art that will undoubtedly spark pride in the Black community at large.
Seeing Black art created over the decades was like a salve to the eyes, which I felt I yearned for but didn’t know I was missing. My father was the only Black artist I knew. He was trained on the European greats, and although his subject matter of Caribbean life and sports was culturally specific, I don’t recall talking about other Black art influences. What struck me was that many of the artists had white teachers, so this tracks.
During the latest AAFCA roundtable, we had the opportunity to interview Thelma Golden, the director and curator for The Studio Museum in Harlem and artist Jordan Casteel. Both women were featured in the documentary, and both let us into the world of Black art.
Golden emphasized the dedication of Driskell to make the history of Black Americans global through art. He was the leading voice in awareness for Black artists, and through his curation, education, and rigour, he built the community that extends up until today. She also spoke about up-and-coming artists, like the Studio Museum’s latest exhibit, The Longing Vessel, featuring three artists in residence.
Casteel herself just came off of her residence at the museum. Her work is well-known, with several exhibitions accomplished, and recently breaking through to popular media outlets with a cover for the September issue of Vogue Magazine. Her realistic paintings are vibrant and exude humanity and the colour found in Black lives.
I asked about finding and training black curators and critics since the white gaze is still a problem when assessing art. Casteel credits places like the Studio Museum as an influence for artists to become critics and curators. It’s an essential learning space for the Black arts community and one that honours the work Driskell did as an artist and curator himself.
The director, Sam Pollard, who is behind the highly-acclaimed documentaries MLK/FBI (2020) and the riveting Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children (2020), was able to find Black artists to participate in the documentary because they were all committed and supportive of each other, making it an easy decision to be involved with the project.
Casteel also agreed with my query about artists as Afrofuturists since she envisages herself in the future she makes, with limitless power over her images and what she creates. She also came from a positive view of art, with one of the other artists featured, Faith Ringgold, as a significant influence. Ringgold was one of the pioneering feminist artists who didn’t have access to the art world, no seat at the table so-to-speak, during the rise of Black artists in Spiral, an African American arts collective in 1963.
When asked if Golden considers herself an artist, she felt she was more of an interlocutor for the artists. Casteel pointed out that Golden connects them with an art language to articulate an exhibit.
You can find the entire interview here:
Black Art: In The Absence Of Light is required viewing for the world to broaden perspectives of the arts and inclusivity, and the documentary airs February 9 at 9:00 pm EST on HBO.