On February 12, 2018 the National Portrait Gallery unveiled the newest additions to its collection – portraits of Former President Barack Obama by the artist Kehinde Wiley and Former First Lady Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald. When both artists were selected and announced last year, members of the public and art community where thrilled at the commitment to diversity in representation of the Obama family and their legacy. Wiley is fairly well known in the contemporary art world, as well as to the general public who may have seen his work featured on the hit television series, “Empire”. While Sherald may not be as well-known in popular culture, she certainly has the education, experience and accolades to warrant selection for the prestigious opportunity.
Longtime supporters of the Obamas were delighted to catch a glimpse of the couple at the unveiling, when they appeared alongside the artists, praising and thanking each for their work. After the presentation reactions were mixed. While some praised the work as beautiful, elegant and cutting edge, others were not so pleased. Why were the portraits so different? Why didn’t Wiley paint them both? Why the color choices? What’s up with Michelle’s dress and her skin tone?
Suddenly, everyone’s an art critic.
What’s interesting about the conversations surrounding the portraits is that it ignited reflection and critique among audiences who otherwise may not have been interested in the work of Black visual artists. The notorious“Black Twitter” does not disappoint when it comes to providing up-to-the-minute insights on just about everything involving Black people and culture. With each comment, reply and retweet, users further dissected the images and other references while challenging one another’s notions of art, Blackness, culture, and history. While this doesn’t make up the entirety of the Black identity and experience, it serves as an indication of the vocabulary and insights that other “traditional” media lacks.
Why the social media uproar about the aesthetic quality of the Obama portraits? Unlike film and TV — where exclusion of Black artists have been met with upheaval (i.e. #oscarssowhite) — the Black visual arts world has not garnered a similar disruption. At least not until now.
Like other art forms, critical views of contemporary and conceptual art are often embedded within constructs and vocabularies that were created by, let’s face it, old white men. They wrote the books and theories that have been studied and perpetuated by subsequent generations. Many art history and art criticism paradigms fail to acknowledge Black artists, curators or critics. I don’t recall discussing a single Black artist in my art humanities class at school. In looking through archives of art history books, it’s almost as if Black artists didn’t exist until emancipation.
Black visual artists did begin to make strides during the Harlem Renaissance in the 30s, taking ownership of Black visual representation and incorporating influences from African culture as an attempt to establish pan-African and diasporic identity. The Black Arts Movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s furthered this mission, and many Black artists formed collectives and founded spaces to share and celebrate one another’s work. Without social media to quickly disseminate information to the masses, many visual artists worked with actors and musicians (who had wider audiences) to circulate their creative output. Finally, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with breakout stars like Jean-Michel Basquiat, white audiences and cultural institutions paid attention, plucking out other token favorites to include in gallery and personal collections as well as in art history reviews and books.
Back to the present. Black artists like Kehinde Wiley, Amy Sherald, Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, and a growing list of emerging talent have become widely celebrated outside the context of white cultural institutions. Still, questions remain. Where are the Black art critics and historians? Where are the Black art institutions? When and how are children (of all shades) being taught about Black artists? Who is helping guide the conversation and education of emerging artists-of-color?
Leaders in the Black arts community such as Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum of Harlem, have pioneered the collection and exhibition of successful Black artists. Dr. Kellie Jones, a professor at Columbia University, has made significant contributions to the literature and pedagogy about Black artists. And there’s a growing list of scholars and curators including Hilton Als, Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, Naima Keith, Kimberly Drew, Isolde Brielmaier, Rujeko Hockley, and Darby English, who continue to put together groundbreaking shows and publish critical reviews.
Should Black audiences hold their tongue when critiquing Black art? Of course not. Can someone without an arts education express their opinion? Absolutely. Should we leverage situations like the present one to refresh our knowledge of art and its contributions? An unqualified Yes.
Black History Month and other pivotal moments such as the Obama portrait unveiling are great reminders of the expansive nature of Black history and culture. To honor and celebrate it, we should all engage and expand society’s understanding not just in the “moment,” but at every opportunity. The next time you’re looking for a date night option or for a good book or film, take a trip to a museum or gallery and queue up a book or documentary about Black artists. And be sure to share what you learn.
For more information about the artists and other cultural institutions with a strong commitment to Black artists, take a look at these resources and feel free to add any others in the comments below.
Art + Practice (Los Angeles)
Black Art In America (Columbus, GA)
Black Contemporary Art Tumblr (online)
Brooklyn Museum (Brooklyn, NY)
California African-American Museum (Los Angeles)
Culture Shock Art (online)
Gallery Gurls (online)
Harlem Fine Arts Show (various cities)
High Museum (Atlanta, GA)
Jack Shainman Gallery (New York, NY)
Museum of Contemporary Art (Los Angeles, CA)
National Black Arts Festival (Atlanta, GA)
Restoration Art (Brooklyn, NY)
Studio Museum of Harlem (Harlem, NY)
Underground Museum (Los Angeles, CA)
Weeksville Heritage Center (Brooklyn, NY)