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Racial Justice and Social Equity

'Black Art' Chronicles A Pivotal Exhibition And Its Lasting Impact On Black Artists

Amy Sherald, who painted the official portrait of Michelle Obama, appeared in the film Black Art: In the Absence of Light.
Amy Sherald, who painted the official portrait of Michelle Obama, appeared in the film Black Art: In the Absence of Light.

Central to the new documentary Black Art: In the Absence of Light is a pivotal art exhibition that debuted in 1976.

"Two Centuries of Black American Art" was the first major show by a Black curator to look at the history of art produced by African Americans. Covering the period between 1750 and 1950, it featured 200 works and 63 artists, with painting, sculpture, drawing, graphics, crafts and decorative arts.

When it went on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the fall of 1976, it drew unprecedented crowds for an exhibit of American art.


"I think what it did was introduce to America and to the world that there were a tremendous number of African American artists who were finally getting their recognition," says Sam Pollard, who directed the film.

Speaking to The New York Times in 1977, exhibit curator David Driskell said he sought out work showing "that blacks had been stable participants in American visual culture for more than 200 years."

Black art and artists have long been sidelined by museums and other gatekeepers in the art world. A recent survey found Black artists are still underrepresented in museum acquisitions and exhibitions.

Black Art is both an indictment of that exclusion as well as a celebration of the 1976 exhibition and its lasting influence on current Black artists.

Here are excerpts of Pollard's interview on Morning Edition about the importance of the exhibit and what needs to change in the art world:


This exhibit that Driskell put on in 1976, your film, both raise the question around whether or not there is such a thing as a Black aesthetic.

There is a Black aesthetic. It's important to have a Black aesthetic. We should not fall into this notion that I grew up with, that you should become a part of the American melting pot and forget who you are. I was told as a young man in the '60s, "Don't think about being a Negro," which was the term then, "think about becoming an American." But that's not possible, you know. So there definitely should be a Black aesthetic. That doesn't take away from the fact that we are still Americans, but we should have been able to have our own sense of identity.

Can you explain the significance of the Studio Museum in New York? Its existence, was it an end in and of itself or a platform to some wider cultural recognition of Black art?

I think it was a platform for wider recognition of Black art. As [former museum executive director] Mary Schmidt Campbell says in the film, people didn't think there needed to be a Black museum, but there needed to be. Like for the same reason we needed to have "Two Centuries," because there was no one recognizing the importance and the impact of African American visual artists. And the Studio Museum was the first place to really do that and shine a light on that within New York City.

You think it was necessary then to have a platform to then push Black art into some kind of mainstream, that it wasn't enough to just make the art for art's sake and be satisfied with it living within the community?

It's a double-edged sword in a way. It should be there for the community, but it should also be understood that it's something that the mainstream should be aware of. So it's a little bit of a double-edged sword. Basically, we want to create art for ourselves. But we want that art to be created so other people outside the community can be aware of it. That's the rationale from my perspective.

You feature Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, the artists who painted the portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama. How have those artists, those portraits changed the trajectory of Black art in America?

It's the same way that the fact that Barack Obama was president of the United States. It's the ability for us to be able to have young people or people of all ages — Black people in particular I'm speaking to — go into the Smithsonian and see those images of Barack and Michelle. ... A little 7-year-old Black girl can look up at that picture of Michelle Obama, and says, "I can aspire to that." And you don't have to say you need to aspire to Bill Clinton or Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Teddy Roosevelt because these people are up there in those museums now look like me.

In a survey of major American museums, it was found that 85% of the art in these museums was produced by white artists, 15% produced by artists of color, and just over 1% was produced by Black artists. Do you see that changing?

Slowly. America is slow to want to catch up, you know, and recognize people other than white people in this country. I mean, look at our social political history in the last four years.

Where are the points of leverage for that change?

It's everybody. It's the people on the board of directors, which need to have more people of color like Henry Louis Gates, who's on some of these boards. It's the collectors who have to be yelling at these museums that you need more Black inclusion or people of color inclusion. It's the masses basically saying ... well how come there isn't Faith Ringgold's work up there or Betye Saar?

Artist Theaster Gates says near the end of the film that Black artists have to be willing to make art when there is no light. Talk a little bit more about the significance of that.

It's the fact that for many, many years, African American artists like him and others have been making work basically that has not been recognized by the mainstream public. And you can't forget that. You know, and don't let yourself become coopted by the mainstream and say that I'm just going to make work that the American mainstream should embrace. You need to still make work for your community. You create work for your community. And if you are able to get to the mainstream, OK, but you should still be making work for your community.

Marc Rivers and Vince Pearson produced and edited the audio interview.

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