By Darien LaBeach
“Many people see my early work simply as portraits of black and brown people. Really, it’s an investigation of how we see those people and how they have been perceived over time.”
– Kehinde Wiley
The subject of representation extends beyond the presence of Black and Brown people in physical spaces. The conversation calls into question how and where the artistry of Black creators deserves to live. Demanding the works of Black artists to live while a White supremacist society questions the lives of the artists reveals a twisted state of irony.
In the year of our Lord, 2020, while competing pandemics of racial and health and economic turmoil swirl around us, discussion of the impact of art can feel frivolous. But it is art that tethers us together as people. We see the powerful yet painful visage captured in Amy Sherald’s Vanity Fair cover of Breonna Taylor. We remember the sacrifice of Colin Kaepernick in a mural painted by Fabian Williams on an Atlanta wall even after the wall was torn down. And, we revere the radicals like Jean Michel Basquiat who force us to face our contradictions in pieces like “Irony of Negro Policeman.”
Art never exists in a vacuum. The work that is created today has the power to impact the minds of the living and those yet to come. Visuals acting as lifelines to the past and present an idea of what the future might look like. But when you consider that the Black British Arts Movement lasted longer than both the Pre-Raphaelite era and Fauvism and there is hardly any mention of The Blk Art Group; founders of the radical political art movement in many arts curriculum we see how Black people continue to be written out of our understanding of history. In 2019, The Met recognized that it had hosted eight exhibitions focused on African American artists in the past 10 years. The museum has about 40 exhibitions every year. And at the National Gallery of Art, there were only 986 works by Black artists out of a total of 153,621 works.
As institutions strive to right the wrongs of the past, we also see how Black artists are taken advantage of in real time. Just this month, The Whitney Museum took a particularly predatory and exploitative approach to acquiring Black art through the “See in Black” charity auction. Visual art by Black creators was purchased at incredibly discounted prices meant to make the works accessible outside of the traditional art buying world and to raise money for anti-racist organizations. Without seeking permission, The Whitney Museum made it clear that Black art mattered most when it could be purchased on the cheap. The pain and frustration felt by the artists stokes the flame fueled by racial injustice. But the power of collectives like See in Black which released a statement about the situation, gives me hope that Black art can continue to uplift our communities and capture both the joy and the pain we feel. Hopefully, the joy can begin to take up more of the picture.