An HBO Documentary Reviews Black Art - For The Masses

Art History

February 5, 2021

The current context of racial tensions in the United States caused an array of mandatory interventions into various fields of human activity. Numerous social groups have been and still are left out of the institutions and therefore the art historical canon itself. For that reason, revisiting the development of Black art, which stands at the core of the American cultural production, and re-contextualizing it accordingly, seems like a much-required contribution.

To fill the gaps and tell the story of struggle, independence, and dignity, the award-winning documentarian Sam Pollard decided to direct and produce an HBO documentary called Black Art: In the Absence of Light. Centered around the iconic 1976 exhibition Two Centuries of Black American Art curated by the late African American artist and scholar David Driskell, the film tends to underline its significance as well as to unravel other historical aspects and the influence they had on several generations of contemporary artists working today. The narrative is supported by a close look at their creative process that enables the full picture.

Alongside well-known contemporary artists, Black Art: In the Absence of Light features leading scholars in the field, as well collectors and contemporary curators. The film was executive produced by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Thelma Golden, the Director and Chief Curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem in New York City, who acted as a consulting producer.

Despite the vibrancy, flamboyance, and a desire to unravel the full trajectory of Black art throughout the 20th century, the documentary did not cover all the relevant phenomena, and it failed to emphasize the broader context of other artistic practices (except for a few) as it focused on the figurative painting at large. Now, before we come to a further deliberation of this claim, it seems mandatory to start from Driskell’s exhibition.

Faith Ringgold. Courtesy HBO

The Seminal Exhibition of Black Art

Driskell’s Two Centuries of Black American Art held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976 was a pioneering exhibition, the first to conduct the development of Black art in America in the 19th and 20th centuries and underline the importance of this production affected by the social climate in the country marked by institutionalized racism. With more than 200 works of art by 63 artists, this exhibition reached enormous popularity and set a new curatorial/musicological standard for interpreting the art practices that were excluded for decades.

After LACMA, Two Centuries of Black American Art traveled to the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and the Brooklyn Museum. The initial impulse for organizing such an exhibition came from the Black Arts Council, the organization established in 1968 that gathered African-American cultural workers and other city residents willing to promote African-American art in Los Angeles.

The Black Arts Council lobbied LACMA to launch the survey of Black art in its main galleries, as previous exhibitions devoted to the subject matter were not that visible. Years have passed, and then the museum’s deputy proposed David Driskell (then the chair of the art department) at Fisk University) to act as a guest-curator on a survey of African-American art.

Led by the belief that black art was a sociological concept rather than an artistic one, Driskell decided to accentuate the continuation and consistency of black artists' activity in American visual culture throughout the centuries. Despite numerous obstacles related to the social neglect of this production, the works were gathered from public and private collections, living artists themselves, as well as historical societies, and other institutions.

Driskell made a huge effort to put this show together and reclaim the histories of oppression and segregation in a well-versed and articulated manner. This milestone exhibition inspired generations of artists who felt empowered to explore new modes of Black representation.

For that reason, Two Centuries of Black American Art stands at the core of the film, as the producer, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., underlines:

David Driskell’s monumental exhibit achieved two great things. It simultaneously consolidated the history of the canon of African American artists, and it launched a revolution in Black representation as well. And it is David’s genius, his double-contribution to the history of African American Art—recording its past in stunning detail and thereby contributing enormously to the astonishingly creative and productive cultural moment we are in—that we celebrate in this film. 

Lyle Ashton Harris. Courtesy HBO

The Voices of The Artists

Alongside David Driskell, the film provides a portrait of the leading seventeen Black artists who came to prominence in recent years as the interest in their works constantly grows. Sam Pollard wanted to contextualize each practice through the prism of multilayered storytelling and historical lineage.

A closer look at the practice of Faith Ringgold, the crucial figure of Black feminist art, unravels the racial tension in the 1960s and 1970s following the activity of the Civil rights movement. The proponent of the following generation, Kerry James Marshall followed a similar path of exploring the domains of Black representation by depicting the African American experience.

The film gives a nod to Hank Willis Thomas’ multimedia works that pose a question regarding the complicated nature of storytelling and history, as well as the remarkable and by now iconic black and white silhouettes and sculptures by Kara Walker that satirically illustrate the stereotypes of race, gender, sexuality, and violence in America.

To underline the major breakthrough of Black artists in mainstream, Black Art: In the Absence of Light features the iconic commissioned portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama produced by Amy Sherald, known for her simplistic portraits, and Kehinde Wiley, who gained fame for the portraits of Black and brown men as powerful heroes.

When it comes to more conceptual approaches, the film presents Glenn Ligon, the artist who devotedly explores American history through his text-based works, and Theaster Gates, who engages with collective performativity to claim the Black spaces.

The consulting producer Thelma Golden, Director and Chief Curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem, nicely summarized the contemporary status of Black artists:

It has been deeply inspiring to see the recent recognition of Black artists and art made by artists of African descent on a global scale. Much like the long lineage of artists who came before them, today’s Black artists have worked to envision their place in the art world, and in the process, their place in a historically exclusionary canon—their indelible contributions to the fabric of American culture are a result of both their mastery and the very singular nature of their work. ‘Black Art: In the Absence of Light’ introduces an art history through the lens of Blackness, foregrounding the definitive importance of representation and its scholarship, and in so doing, inspiring generations to come. 

Kerry James Marshall - School of Beauty, School of Culture, 2012. Courtesy HBO

The Black Art: In the Absence of Light Documentary on HBO

Since the documentary focuses mostly on figurative painting and barely tackles other and more unconventional approaches to art-making, it struggles with consistency in presenting the full scope of Black art practices. Another issue is an overall intention to accentuate the very act of creating art in the most traditional sense, rather than indicating the socio-political context which the same articulates.

That is especially present in terms of dramaturgy as the story sways and occasionally offers glimpses of the most important phenomena starting from the Harlem Renaissance, the Spiral group, The Black Arts Movement, the Kamoinge Workshop, and the radical (women) artists who supported the Black Panthers.

Nevertheless, to cover the whole story would take more than one film, an entire series. The greatest potential of Black Art: In the Absence of Light is that it will be broadcasted via a mainstream television network and streaming service, and will without a doubt show a wider audience what treasure Black art is in the context of the American visual culture. For that reason, the criticism of this film has to be subtle and reduced to a few footnotes. In the end, it indeed underlines the main features of the African-American community and the importance of empowerment, a sense of belonging, and equality in a constant struggle for a better tomorrow.

Black Art: In the Absence of Light will be available to stream on HBO Max from February 9, 2021.

Black Art: In the Absence of Light (2021) Trailer HBO

Featured image: David Driskell, Theaster Gates, and Jordan Casteel. Courtesy HBO