Earlier this summer, a painting by Kerry James Marshall was sold at auction for $21 million dollars, making it the highest amount ever paid for art created by a living African American artist. At that same auction, a number of other surprising and record breaking black art purchases were made. Currently, the highest amount paid for a painting by a non-minority artist is $110 million. This disparity in suggested worth has brought up a lot of questions about the position of black art and black artists in the larger art environment.
The erasure of blacks and other minority cultures from art history has been demonstrated through a lack of presence in major auctions, museums, galleries and art history curricula. It encompasses not only an absence of minority figures in the art itself, but black artists as well. The issue isn’t that black art is rare or that black artists are less talented, so why is there such an absence of black representation in art? And it’s not just a local problem; take a walk through the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery in London or the Louvre in Paris and it will quickly become obvious. This absence seems to imply that black people were either not around or played no, or very few, significant roles in the history of the world even though that is far from true.
This real world presence that is so often neglected or forgotten can be seen in the blending of European architectural styles with those found in predominantly black civilizations, like in the case of Moorish style architecture in Spain and Portugal. There are also black people described in numerous legal records, literature and texts throughout Europe. Yes, many were slaves and servants in the West, but they were also landowners, nobility, and members of royalty like the first Duke of Florence, Alessandro de' Medici.
In the United States, it is not uncommon for textbooks and lessons to leave out crucial parts of history they would rather forget. In many schools across the country, students are prevented from learning about the Japanese internment camps of World War II, or how many black, low income and disabled people were used in inhumane medical experiments in order for scientists to study the effects of various diseases and harmful substances. In many educational institutions, black art and artists are not seen as important enough to the progression of art to be discussed in depth or many times to be discussed at all.
But this idea of altering history goes beyond simply ignoring the presence, sacrifice and contributions of black people. In numerous cases, black figures in art have been repainted to depict them as fairer skinned than they actually were, removed from paintings during restorations, or cropped out of paintings in reproductions meant for textbooks and other educational purposes. It’s incredibly important for black people to know their history, to understand their worth and truly comprehend the depth of their contributions to modern life and society.
“Museums are afraid of what they will bring to the surface and how people will feel about certain issues that are long buried. They keep it buried, as if it doesn’t exist, as though people aren’t feeling these things anyway, instead of opening that sore and cleaning it out so it can heal,” stated Fred Wilson, an African American installation artist working to change the way museums prioritize their collections by exposing the hypocrisy and racial bias of their displays.
At one of his first major exhibitions, Mining the Museum, at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, Wilson created a display commenting on the museum’s decision to forgo obtaining art of prominent African Americans from Maryland while choosing to show pieces celebrating white men who had never lived in the state. In this installation, he made note of the inclusion of busts of men like Andrew Jackson and Napoleon while highlighting the absence of any reference to unquestionably influential Marylanders like Harriet Tubman, Benjamin Banneker and Frederick Douglass. “What they put on view says a lot about a museum, but what they don’t put on view says even more,“ said Wilson.
Another display in the same exhibition touched on appropriation in the arts in general. In the installation, Wilson took a copy of Picasso’s "Les Demoiselles d’Avignon" and replaced the faces with African inspired tribal masks. This was a direct reference to the inspiration African culture had on primitive styles of art created by artists like Picasso. When museum visitors looked into the eyes of the masks, they were met with Wilson discussing the phenomenon with two Senegalese men and asking questions such as “if my contemporary art is your traditional art, is my art your cliché?”
Along with Wilson, there are many artists today that are finding new and imaginative ways to face the issue. Artists like Titus Kaphar and Kehinde Wiley, who take varied approaches in tackling and discussing black erasure in art history.
Titus Kaphar addresses erasure by amending paintings and sculptures of prominent figures from American history and revealing their morally questionable legacies. His painting of Andrew Jackson, based on an 1833 painting by Ralph Earl, directly addresses Jackson’s connection to the trail of tears and the displacement of tens of thousands of Native people. "The Cost of Removal," Kaphar’s painting of Jackson, purposefully mimics the painting by Ralph Earl, which currently resides at The Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s home turned museum in Tennessee.
The main difference between the two paintings is Kaphar’s addition of torn canvas pieces attached to the painting with rusted nails. On the torn pieces of canvas are words by Andrew Jackson himself speaking on the displacement of Native Americans before he signed the Indian Removal Act in 1831. The nails are a direct reference to an African ritual where they are hammered into items of significance with each nail symbolizing a person who has chosen to glorify the item or, in this case, who it represents. The work of Titus Kaphar usually uses these added physical elements to reconstruct the ”misremembered,” but accepted versions of history on display in many museums. These alterations are meant to reveal the uncomfortable and unpleasant realities of history without removing the artwork that has become so significant to our nation’s history.
Kehinde Wiley uses a different technique to critique the inherent racism in art history. In Wiley’s paintings, done in the style of traditional European portraiture, he takes the historical poses and decorative elements of classical paintings and turns them into a modern commentary on black identity and masculinity by combining them with contemporary urban fashion and minority subjects.
“The whole conversation of my work has to do with power and who has it,” states Kehinde Wiley. “They’re assuming the poses of colonial masters, the former bosses of the Old World.” Wiley finds the subjects of his paintings on city streets, stopping anyone he finds that possesses a type of self assurance and power that he’s attracted to. Once in his studio, the models are given the opportunity to sift through books filled with aristocratic portrait paintings and choose the pose they want to portray in the painting.
Wiley gives the black models in his massive paintings more autonomy than the black figures in the original paintings ever had. "By using subjects who come from underserved communities, creating a global conversation around who has power, who deserves to be seen in the great museums throughout the world, I don't think I'm throwing any systems," he says. "I think I'm simply pointing to moments of beauty, moments I definitely recognize as being worthy of being celebrated. It's not about creating grand sweeping political narratives, it's about finding quiet moments of beauty in the world, and for me, those moments happen to look like me."
Wilson, Kaphar and Wiley all have upcoming exhibitions where visitors from across the United States and abroad can see firsthand their efforts to address cultural erasure. Wilson’s exhibition at the Pace Gallery in New York, exposes the often overlooked connection between Africa and the Ottoman Empire. The installations and artwork on display serve as a reminder to the viewer that, in the context of museums, the overlapping and connection of cultures is often omitted to create a skewed viewpoint in which black culture and presence is often ignored. A collection of Kaphar’s artworks are currently on display in the “UnSeen” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. The exhibition recognizes the absence of African Americans, Latino Americans and Native Americans in portraits of well known American historical figures and raises the question of how their lack of representation has influenced the understanding of U.S. history.
This October, the St. Louis Art Museum in Missouri will be presenting a five month long exhibition featuring numerous paintings by Wiley based off of artworks from the museum’s collection. The portraits created for the exhibition feature models he found on the streets of north St. Louis and Ferguson, giving the exhibition a particularly personal touch for visitors from the area. Another one of his paintings, the last commissioned portrait of Michael Jackson, is currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Although museums do seem to be making an effort to collect more work by black artists, the system is still clearly flawed. “Progress is not simply about numbers, but understanding this work, in the context of art history and museum practice, as essential,” stated Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem. Regardless of the medium or subject matter, black art is almost always treated as a commentary on race. It’s almost as if, in order to be a successful black artist, they must perpetually create art that speaks on black culture and racism. It’s not important for an artist’s race to be apparent just by looking at their work but, knowing that there are an increasing number of black artists being featured in museums and galleries is important. True progress will be achieved when work by black artists are collected based on the same criteria as their mainstream white counterparts instead of being judged as having an inherent racial bias. It is up to modern day art collectors, curators, and art historians to change the perspective.
As for people who aren’t part of the inner workings of the art world, the best and easiest way to start is by supporting your local black artists. Follow them on social media to keep up to date with their progress and go to their shows so you can ask them about their process and motivations. Another great way to get involved is to buy black art. I know that it can be a little daunting, not everyone can drop money on art like Diddy or Jay-Z, but you can start small by buying a print for as little as $10 or save up to buy something moderately more expensive. Something as simple as showing an interest can be the motivation an artist needs to keep pushing and breaking barriers.