On Friday, February 5, HBO held a conversation and screening in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institute and the National Museum of African American History and Culture to debut their latest documentary Black Art: In the Absence of Light online.
The film highlights the revolutionary work of artist David Driskell, his pursuit to receive acknowledgement in the mostly white art space, and the effects of his legacy found in Black artists today. Arguably Driskell’s most renowned exhibition Two Centuries of Black American Art is at the forefront of his legacy in the art realm. Lonnie G. Bunch, secretary at the Smithsonian Institution, opened up the screening discussing the impact of the show. “That groundbreaking show challenged the art world that African American art is the quintessential American art,” said Bunch.
Dr. Tuliza Fleming who serves as interim chief curator of visual arts at NMAAHC moderated a panel of those involved with the film. In attendance, the film’s director and producer Sam Pollard best known as a pioneer in documenting the Black experience in America, executive producer Henry Louis Gates Jr. who is additionally the director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, consulting producer and director of the Studio Museum in Harlem Thelma Golden, along with artists who are featured in the film as well.
To begin the discussion, Fleming asked about why making this film now was important. Gates Jr. emphasized how as a studier, teacher, and collector of African American art he discovered that the period of works now marvels that of the Harlem Renaissance. He approached Richard Plepler, CEO of HBO, with the idea and the story was immediately developed on the condition that Pollard directed and Golden consulted.
Originally, Gates Jr’s idea for the film was to spotlight Golden’s exhibition Black Male Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art which showed at the Whitney Museum in 1994. However, Golden explained that the real trailblazer for Black art curation was Driskell’s bicentennial exhibition. “I realized right away that she [Golden] was right. The Black Male was a moment in the long arch starting in 1976 that David had curated and brought into being. That way we could bring in The Black Male exhibit, we could bring in the importance of the Studio Museum as a generator of ideas and creativity, and capture this very moment culminated with the unveiling of the portraits of the first African American President and first African American first lady, and that’s how it call came about,” said Gates Jr.
For Pollard, he’d been a fan of Driskell and found that having the artist as a subject engaged his vision.“To me, it was just a great honor to be able to spend time with David,” said Pollard. “I spent two wonderful days with him interviewing him and him showing us his work in his home. All the artwork that he had collected as a young man.” Driskell’s unique collection of works are showcased in the film as is he. Unfortunately, the artist passed in April of 2020, but the film preserves his dedication to the fight for inclusion of African American art in mainstream media.
What’s special about the film are the minds behind it crossing paths with Driskell at some point. Golden was a friend of his and inspired by his resilience in paving a way that she walked on to curate her exhibition Black Male. “The need to make that exhibition created an art history that allowed us to fully understand the breath and the depth of the contributions of black artists similar to why the Studio Museum was found. To create a museum devoted to black artists,” said Golden. When asked about if she felt there are still some of the same issues of representation and recognition that inspired Driskell to create Two Centuries of Black American Art, Golden stated that there’s a whole new tier for us to grasp on this journey. “Do we still need it, well we need it in different ways. I think there’s a lot of expansive possibility in cultural specificity, and there’s a lot of amazing work that gets done when we dive deep into the depths of the culture. But I also think we are still fighting for what it means to understand the canon in all of its’ possibilities, and I believe this film allows us to be in that conversation in complex and nuanced ways, and it introduces these ideas to a broad audience,” said Golden.
To add onto the notion of representation, the youngest panelist and artist in the film, Jordan Casteel, emphasized the importance of generational communication, knowledge, and experiences even if there is repetition in the way discussions are based around Black art. For Casteel, she noted how Driskell’s work caused her to reflect on her own experience in creating art of black bodies from a black body and the importance of what she creates to others and herself. “I didn’t have the opportunity to see it in my young mind in the flesh at that time, but I was aware of the artists that were present in the exhibition because my parents had posters of their artwork on the wall. The narrative that they’re telling was my own, and it’s always been my own so there’s a certain agency that I’ve always felt in knowing that my story is valuable because I saw representations of myself through art and being valued by the masses and that’s the power of generating a very culturally specific conversation to the masses. That all of sudden the thing that feels real unique to me and my experience gets to be something that can be shared with others,” said Casteel.
Then, Fleming asked the panel ways to change or improve effective communications between the artists, institutions, and the community with regards to how art by Back artists are displayed in museums. Theaster Gates an artist and sculptor best known for upcycling raw material into magnificent pieces claimed that it takes a volume of sincerity from all those involved to accomplish the goal of having Black artists feel regarded. “There has to be a deep and sincere and abiding interest from the museum at every level of the museum. From the board to the directors to the senior curators, junior curators, and staff. There has to be a real belief that the art of our time and the art that pervades this country has a right and a place in their museums,” said Gates. Furthermore, Gates noted that there is work to be done however we can’t deny the progression of the commendation of African American artists. “I think that when we get to the point where we really believe that all Americans have the ability to make great art and that all artistic practices have the right to be researched and curated. It’ll take a tremendous amount of effort, but I think that we’re starting to get there where curators are more curious today and more open today than they’ve been in the past and directors are being trained and interviewed,” said Gates.
Carrie Mae Weems, one of the biggest names in contemporary art agreed tremendously with the view that art is now blossoming into something accessible to anyone and the documentary leads you to realize this.“It’s such an exciting time where there are all of these possibilities, all of this openness, all of these ways to channel and to discuss and unpack this work. So for the young artists or the young art historian or the young critic, writer, thinker to engage it, the field that they have to work in at this point is something that was unimaginable even fifty years ago,” stated Weems.
To close off the conversation, Pollard remarked that although many involved in the film were of academia including Rick Powell, Mary Schmidt Campbell, Sarah Elizabeth Louis, and Maurice Berger, it was the hard work of the contemporary artists that molded the documentary for him. Adding to this, Gates Jr. agreed that the takeaway of this film lies in the realness of its’ subjects, “The primary focus is Sam in the studio with the artist making art and talking about the making of art as art and there’s never been a film done about African American art in this way and it’s a great compliment to Sam Pollard and Thelma Golden,” said Gates Jr.