Sam Pollard’s Newest Film Creates Space to Complete the History of American Art

Poster of the documentary, Black Art in the Absence of Light. Photograph by Courtesy of HBO
“Black Art in the Absence of Light” by Sam Pollard. Courtesy HBO

“The experience of Black America and White America is very different”, that is one of the many messages, here told by Mary Schmidt Campbell, former Executive Director of The Studio Museum in Harlem, in this excellent documentary that brings forth the experiences of Black artists, curators, and collectors. The film also highlights the universities and exhibition spaces that gave opportunities to African-American art practitioners when nobody else would, such as the Studio Museum and the groundbreaking exhibition curated by artist, curator, and collector David Kriskell in 1976, “Two Centuries of Black American Art” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

In the introduction, Driskell mentions people being surprised at the time by the idea that he could come up with a list of 50 to 100 African-American artists that they had never heard of. Only it wasn’t that surprising considering they had no exhibition or publication showcasing their work up until then—he was the first Black curator to do so. “This had to be done, because the American canon would not be complete without it”, he tells filmmaker Sam Pollard, who visited him in his studio up until his death last year from complications due to Covid-19. The exhibition surveyed African American art since 1750, raising a backlash from (white) critics who weren’t aware of Black artistic production and didn’t know how to talk about it, but more importantly it inspired not only those who attended the show, but also the younger generations of African-American artists who grew up with the book produced for the occasion. 

Curator David Driskell. Photograph by Courtesy of HBO
David Driskell in his studio from “Black Art in the Absence of Light” by Sam Pollard. Courtesy HBO

Brilliantly edited, the film answers questions of representation, belonging and legacies through a series of multiple interviews with artists, including Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald who created empowering yet intimate portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama; Jordan Casteel who consciously portrays Black people and the Black body with “as much care and attention as possible”; Kara Walker who says that she started making cut-outs as an antidote to painting; or Richard Mayhew, painter of mindscapes, who studied in Florence and Amsterdam before joining the Spiral Group in 1963, at the hight of the Civil Rights Movement.

Other exhibitions involving Black practitioners are also mentioned such as the 1994 “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art” curated by Thelma Golden (also interviewed in the documentary) at the Whitney Museum. The show centred around race, sexuality, and gender, challenging stereotypical representations of Black masculinity. It’s still having repercussions and riveting conversations today. In 2014, on its 20th anniversary, now Director and Chief Curator at the Studio Museum, Golden spoke with writer and editor of the catalogue Hilton Als and art historian and critic Huey Copeland. To re(view) their talk go here

Mary Schmidt Campbell. Photograph by Courtesy of HBO
Mary Schmidt Campbell from “Black Art in the Absence of Light” by Sam Pollard. Courtesy HBO

A less exciting enterprise, as mentioned by Valerie Cassel Oliver, curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, was “Harlem on My Mind”, at the Met in 1968. The exhibition missed the mark by failing to include the wealth of artistic production it was covering, and members of the community it was portraying—anthropological style—in the organisation of the show. Notably, Pollard didn’t fail to include into the conversation artist Faith Ringgold, who had protested the show at the Met, but had also suffered from being a woman besides being Black within her own community (she tried to join but was rejected by the Spiral Group). She later started a series of soft sculptures lecturing about women artists, calling attention to the fact that it wasn’t just an issue of race, but gender too. ”I realised I was really doing the right thing by becoming a feminist” she tells Pollard.

Many more voices appear in the film, such as Rujeko Hockley, Assistant Curator at the Whitney Museum of Art, who reminds us that there have always been Black artists, curators, and collectors, they just haven’t been part of the mainstream conversations; Hip-Hop artist Kasseem Dean aka Swizz Beatz who started the Dean Collection as “this imaginary museum” for his children; author Michele Wallace who emphasises that it’s essential Black people with money buy African-American art; Sarah Lewis, Associate Professor at Harvard University, who acknowledges the changes occurring in museums: they “now understand that they need to tell a counter narrative about American life and Black art, that they need to correct what stories haven’t been told”. A well-paced documentary, insightful and well-crafted that speaks about art politics, but mostly about art making, from the personal stories and career paths of artists to the artistic inspirations that nourish them and keep them going.

“David Kriskell on His Legacy”. Courtesy the High Museum of Art

+ A major survey of Kriskell’s works is currently on view at the High Museum, see here to learn more about this exceptional figure of African-American art whose artistic, curatorial, and thinking work is a leitmotiv in Pollard’s film.
+ An Artforum talk around the work of late curator Okwui Enwezor (1963-2019), on the occasion of “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America”, an exhibition originally conceived by Enwezor and presented at the New Museum is happening online tomorrow, with Naomi Beckwith, Malik Gaines, Theaster Gates (also featured in Pollard’s film), Massimiliano Gioni, and Julie Mehretu, register here

Art critic and writer.

Comments are closed.