2018: the revival of the black arts movement

December 24, 2018
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In 2018 Black visual culture not only permeated all realms of society, it successfully made the personal political — even universal. A new relationship to the accolades of fame, career pivots to activism and institution building, and sophisticated uses of adult play have converged into a wave of structural and ideological evolution that seems to be just getting started. Below are a few in a constellation of cultural activity both known and unknown.

Moving like a quiet storm through the ether of the art world were rising artists Nathaniel Mary Quinn and Deborah Roberts. Their work may not be epic in physical scale or mass appeal, but it is monumental in its excavation of interiority. Both artists employ collage as a figurative language to tell their own life stories, while simultaneously engaging the omnipresent within the particular. These are intricate expressions of the forming identity, the layered complexity and all-around diversity of contemporary Black life, seen through the lens of childhood, trauma and a host of other themes. By year’s end, Roberts was one of ten recipients of the Anonymous Was A Woman Award, and Mary Quinn’s work, presented at top-tier galleries like Pace and Salon 94, had become highly coveted among collectors.

At the other end of the magnitude spectrum, established artists continued the work of collaborative civic engagement by leveraging their economic, social and cultural capital. Following in the footsteps of Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses (Houston, circa 1995), Theaster Gates’ Rebuild Foundation (Chicago, 2010), Mark Bradford’s Art + Practice (Los Angeles, 2013), came more work that re-imagined communities through art, neighborhood revitalization and education. 2018 witnessed  the opening of Nick Cave’s self-funded Chicago space, Facility; and the development of a 40,000 square foot space called NXTHVN in New Haven, Connecticut by painter Titus Kaphar., who was also one of this year’s MacArthur Genius Fellows.

WASHINGTON, DC – FEBRUARY 12: Former U.S. President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama stand next to their newly unveiled portraits during a ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, on February 12, 2018 in Washington, DC. The portraits were commissioned by the Gallery, for Kehinde Wiley to create President Obama’s portrait, and Amy Sherald that of Michelle Obama. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The year witnessed Black artists navigating broader notions of audiences, the circulation of ideas, and the porous borders between the insular world of fine art and popular culture. These conversations in the global zeitgeist were perhaps prefaced by the February 2018 unveiling of the Obama presidential portraits, made by painters Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald.

There were numerous examples. Derrick Adams cross-pollinated the fields of fashion, television and fine art with a slew of uplifting projects: Sanctuary, at the Museum of Art and Design (MAD), which amplified the history of the “The Negro Motorist Green Book”; a seven-story mural created for a Chicago shopping mall, which paid homage to the late-great fashion designer, Patrick Kelly; and, appearances on the television series Insecure, among other sightings. At the New Museum in New York, filmmaker Kahlil Joseph, who was recognized for his work on Beyonce’s Lemonade, debuted a stunningly poetic black and white film, Fly Paper, masterfully inflected with sound as an artform. The work was in-part an homage to the legendary photographer, Roy DeCarava, who captured the elegant beauty of Black Harlem (and who posthumously saw the 2018 re-release of his iconic 1955 collaborative book project with Langston Hughes, The Sweet Flypaper of Life). Another film, the seven-minute, Love is The Message, The Message is Death, by cinematographer and artist Arthur Jafa, had actually debuted in 2017, but it went on a world tour this year, essentially going viral in the art world and beyond. Screened on a loop, it is a dizzyingly video edit of Black diaspora activity and life—from footage of Obama singing “Amazing Grace” and police officer Michael Slager shooting the unarmed Walter Scott, to YouTube clips of “swag surfin”—set to a performance of Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam.” The film’s conceptual goals explored and communicated Blackness visually in relation to the most deeply embedded and liberating cultural medium found in Black culture, music.

Carrie Mae Weems, on the cover of the New York Times T Magazine, October 21, 2018

In October, a cover of New York Times’ T Magazine photographed by Mickalene Thomas recognized Carrie Mae Weems as one of “The Greats”. Although Weems’s images have already made her an icon in the art world, her contributions to correcting narratives on the Black experience seem poised for deeper application, and mass consciousness.

Such corrections to the historical record of museums were undeniably de rigueur in 2018. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibition, Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016, presented a retrospective of Piper’s 50-year career as an artist and philosopher focused on critiquing structural racism and oppression. Piper, who holds a PhD in Philosophy from Harvard University, has experienced some resistance to her scholarly ideas, which challenge the philosophical foundations of western culture. Yet the institutional affirmation of the MOMA show brought weight to both her conceptual art practice and scholarship.

Charles White (American, 1918-1979). J’Accuse #7. 1966. Charcoal on paper, 39 1/4 × 51 1/2″ (99.7 × 130.8 cm). Private collection. © The Charles White Archives/ Photo courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

A kind of peak may have been achieved in New York City in the Fall of 2018, when one could see three major museum shows devoted to great Black American artists: Charles White: A Retrospective at MoMA, Soul of Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at the Brooklyn Museum, and Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture 1963-2017 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Met Breuer location. White’s breathtaking paintings and drawings depicted the elegant grace and decency of Black personhood, spiritually elevating them. Soul of Nation, which launched at London’s Tate Modern in 2017 (and spent a chunk of 2018 at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas), is an epic summation of art made by Black Americans between 1963-1983; the 150 works on view (painting, sculpture, photography, printmaking, conceptual, figurative, abstract, and all manner of experimental Black creativity) offered infinite insight, inspiration and Black power. The Met Breuer’s nuanced presentation of Whitten’s sculptural legacy (he passed away in January, at the age 78) was a rich overview of his work and intellectual influences, which ranged from ancient Greek myths to quantum physics.

Roy DeCarava, “Couple walking” (1979), Silver gelatin print, 11 x 14 in. (27.9 x 35.6 cm), Courtesy Sherry DeCarava and the DeCarava Archives, from the exhibit, ‘Soul of a Nation’

There were artists who directly addressed the current political moment. For Freedoms, an artist-led super-PAC co-founded by artist (and one of 2018’s Guggenheim Fellows) Hank Willis Thomas, proposed a vision for the future of democracy by positing that “citizenship is defined by participation, not by ideology.” Founded in 2016, For Freedoms produced a lot of public work ahead of the midterm elections, continuing to create non-partisan platforms for local civic engagement through town halls, billboards, exhibitions, lawn signs, a robust website, and educational projects.


It goes without saying that there were many small local-level outposts of Black Art Renaissance that were percolating on all sorts of frequencies, just as there were several large-scale events and exhibitions that took place around the globe, and that reaffirmed this energy. Especially in Africa. The 11th edition of Les Rencontres de Bamako, The African Biennale of Photography, wrapped up at the end of January; its primary theme was Afrotopia, and included a collateral exhibition, Afrofuturism: Transhumans Imagining A New Vision For Africa curated by Azu Nwagbogu, who later in the year was named executive director and chief curator of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art, which opened in Cape Town in 2017 to great fanfare. Also this year, after numerous successful editions in London and New York, the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair finally landed on the continent it is devoted to, when it launched in Marrakech, Morocco in February.

Large-scale art experiences by artists across the Diaspora also found audiences. In London, the TATE Britain presented a six-month quirky respite when the British multimedia artist Anthea Hamilton presented, Anthea Hamilton: The Squash. It was a vegetal sculpture- and performance-based installation, born from Hamilton’s fascination with a photograph of ambiguous origins that Hamilton believes to be the documentation of a work of Latin American performance art from the 1970s. While at New York’s Park Avenue Armory, Nick Cave hit perhaps the year’s most refreshing note with his project, The Let Go. It was a liberating month-long dancehall experience for the public that echoed revelatory nights on the dance floor of 1980s club culture, while simultaneously presenting an alternative way forward in a socio-political context, by using dance as a non-verbal point of view within a “Town Hall” environment.

In fact, Cave’s interactive and engaging environment seemed to encapsulate a recurring theme in 2018. The intersection of ideas—whether through the intimate space of collage, innovative film editing or the activation of public spaces across the globe—empowered and expanded a network of Black artists and enthusiasts on multiple registers. It is a practice that will only continue to grow, bring even more power to the people.