New HBO Documentary Black Art: In the Absence of Light is a Celebration of African American Artists

Black Art: In the Absence of Light (film still featuring Theaster Gates), 2021. Image courtesy of HBO.
Black Art: In the Absence of Light (film still featuring Amy Sherald), 2021. Image courtesy of HBO.
Black Art: In the Absence of Light (film still featuring Kerry James Marshall), 2021. Image courtesy of HBO.
Black Art: In the Absence of Light, 2021, featuring Kerry James Marshall, A Portrait of the Artist as A Shadow of His Former Self, 1980. Image courtesy of HBO.
Black Art: In the Absence of Light, 2021, featuring Kara Walker, Insurrectiokn! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On), 2000. Image courtesy of HBO.
Black Art: In the Absence of Light (film still featuring David Driskell), 2021. Image courtesy of HBO.
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In a new HBO documentary, award-winning filmmaker Sam Pollard pays tribute to David Driskell and the remarkable Black artists that have contributed to the fabric of the American art scene. 

 

TEXT: Olivia Lai
IMAGES: Courtesy of HBO

As we mark Black History Month this February, celebrating the significant roles African-Americans have played in history, HBO is debuting a new documentary on 9 February titled Black Art: In the Absence of Light and directed by award-winning filmmaker Sam Pollard to shine a spotlight on Black artists and the history of African American experience.

Black Art centres around the groundbreaking exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art” in 1976, boldly curated by the late artist and art historian David Driskell (1931–2020), and how its representation of Black artists and experience have inspired and emboldened African American artists for generations to come. Presented at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art“Two Centuries” was the first major exhibition in a mainstream setting that featured more than 200 artworks by African American artists from the 18th to 20th century. But what made it a landmark show was how it shone a light to previously uncelebrated Black artists, allowing the African-American community to witness a positive perception of themselves. In celebrating their lineage, the exhibition created a boom of African American artists for generations to come.

 

Black Art: In the Absence of Light (film still featuring Theaster Gates), 2021. Image courtesy of HBO.
Black Art: In the Absence of Light (film still featuring Amy Sherald), 2021. Image courtesy of HBO.
Black Art: In the Absence of Light (film still featuring Kerry James Marshall), 2021. Image courtesy of HBO.

 

Interweaving interviews with Driskell done shortly before his passing in 2020 and more than 15 of the most talented African American artists working now, including the likes of Richard Mayhew, Faith Ringgold, Theaster Gates and Kara Walker, the film explores the lasting impact of “Two Centuries” as well as how it gave birth to various movements within the Black Art community, from Ringgold’s Black feminism to Norman Lewis’ Black abstraction. Think of it as a crash course in Black Art, the documentary paints a nuanced picture of what Black Art means to these artists, their creative process and how social and political identities are manifested in their works.

Take Kerry James Marshall for example, a compelling verbal storyteller as well as a famed painter, whose figures in his works have overtly dark skin tones. Marshall takes a stance on how “Black is not the absence of colour” in his art by using colours mixed from black and producing a wide range of shades, demonstrating black can be just as complex as any colour.

 

Black Art: In the Absence of Light, 2021, featuring Kerry James Marshall, A Portrait of the Artist as A Shadow of His Former Self, 1980. Image courtesy of HBO.

 

Power is a major theme in the documentary, or as Gates explains in the film: “Art is a way to insert power”. For Kehinde Wiley, who was commissioned to produce former US President Barack Obama’s official presidential portrait in 2018, there’s inherent power in his role as a Black artist to paint the first African American president. But Wiley pushes the envelope further by challenging the conventional view of power by setting Obama against a lush foliage backdrop and creating an image that is in stark contrast to the usually conservative, two centuries-worth of portraits of White American presidents. There’s also power in taking back control and correcting stories that were told as we see with Amy Sherald. Her portraitures contends with past images of Black figures being passive in historical art and emphasises the eye contact between her figures and the audience to the effect of almost confrontational.

The film also provides a lot of historical context where viewers are guided through other significant stepping stones in the Black Art movement prior to Driskell’s exhibition such as the Harlem on My Mind protests in 1969, which was in reaction to the lack of Black artists or members of the Harlem community represented in an exhibition about Harlem held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Another important exhibition noted is “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art”, which was mounted in 1995 at Whitney Museum of American Art. Though the showcase was provocative in its counter narrative on Black masculinity and the male body, what was more telling was the tidal wave of criticism and anger following its launch, highlighting the amount of Caucasian art critics at the time. Much like all the levels of society, change can only happen by having more diversity in the curation process, as well as having more Black art critics.

 

Black Art: In the Absence of Light, 2021, featuring Kara Walker, Insurrectiokn! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On), 2000. Image courtesy of HBO.
Black Art: In the Absence of Light (film still featuring David Driskell), 2021. Image courtesy of HBO.

 

But the African American art community has since made monumental strides. The film sees a rise in private art collectors of Black Art such as hip-hop artist Kasseem Dean (aka Swizz Beatz) and positively reinfornces the importance of promoting living artists, and fine arts institutions like the Studio Museum in Harlem and Spelman College that allows Black artists to have the resources and community to thrive.

Though Black Art lacks the drama and light on the ongoing struggles for African American artists today, the film manages to be compelling and insightful on the dramatically changing landscape for the Black art community and the forces behind it. It’s also rare to have this many heavy hitters from the art community featured together. Even if you’re unfamiliar with these names, the film successfully provides snapshots on these artists’ most significant works, enough for audiences to be itching to learn more and to follow their careers.

The phrase “representation matters” has been a rousing slogan heard throughout Black Lives Matter protests and the film drives home on how far we’ve come thanks to Black representation in art, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

 

 

 
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