“African American artists have used art to preserve history and community memory as well as for empowerment.” This February’s Black History Month celebrations in the USA are connected to the theme of Black Americans and the Arts. In line with this year’s focus, these are five key exhibitions that showcase creative expression across moving image, photography and more. Captivating pieces prompt deep reflection whilst taking us across geographical locations and time periods, from the daily life of a custodian living and working in 1960s Washington D.C. to the holy site of present-day Mount Suswa in Kenya.
“History remains with us in the present; it permeates the very ground we walk on, the air we breathe,” says American photographer Dawoud Bey, whose current exhibition focuses on times gone by. Born in Queens, New York, Bey is known for work that shows street scenes and expressive portraits. These images are brimming with humanity, complexity and empathy, chronicling the lives of marginalised people and unseen events. In Elegy, the artist turns to landscapes, meditating on place as a profound repository of memory – a witness to African American experiences that are rarely represented within collective US history.
Based in New York, Wangechi Mutu is a Kenyan-American multidisciplinary artist working across moving image, sculpture and painting. Her expansive practice addresses the key themes of culture, globalisation, femininity and overconsumption. The 2020 video, My Cave Call, is a parable on wisdom-seeking. Set at Mount Suswa – a holy site in Kenya – the footage centres around histories that have been lost and marks the beginning of a reclamation process. The film is about the ways humans have become disconnected from their roots. At the same time, it offers a hopeful message on how traditional knowledge can be restored.
“Far from isolated or ancillary, Black arts and cultural production in Oregon has been in conversation and interchange with the world, and a part of its arts and cultural movements, all this time,” states Intisar Abioto, the curator of Black Artists of Oregon. The exhibition grew from Abioto’s interview-based research with the Black elders in Oregon’s art scene, such as Adriene Cruz, Bobby Fouther and Isaka Shamsud-Din. The show surveys the captivating work of 67 artists from the 1880s to today, serving to redress historic exclusion in order to broaden our understanding of American art history and the Pacific Northwest.
Renowned filmmaker and photographer Isaac Julien CBE RA breathes life into history through thought-provoking moving image works that critically address the politics of race and gender. Lessons of the Hour is a film installation about the abolitionist, writer and freed slave Frederick Douglass as well as the influential women of his time, such as women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony as well as the abolitionist and feminist Ottilie Assing. Julien shows the world of inequalities that Douglass lived in and resisted against. Depicted with a modern aesthetic, the film remains relevant in relation to struggles for social justice today.
Custodian Ella Watson and photographer Gordon Parks met in the federal building where they both worked. This encounter blossomed into a deeper creative collaboration. MIA showcases more than 50 photographs he took showing different aspects of her life: at work, home and within her community. The exhibition is named after the famous photograph of Watson posed in front of the American flag, with a mop and broom in the foreground. These images reckon with the realities of Black life in racially segregated Washington D.C. whilst showing the ways in which Watson was a pillar of her family and church.
- Isaac Julien, The Lady of the Lake (Lessons of the Hour), 2019, framed gloss inkjet photograph mounted on aluminium, 63 x 84 inches, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London/Venice.
- Conjoined Trees and Field, from the series In This Here Place, 2019, Dawoud Bey (American, born 1953), gelatin silver print. Rennie Collection, Vancouver. Image © Dawoud Bey
- Wangechi Mutu (b. 1972), My Cave Call, (still), 2021; Single-channel video, Colour, Sound; Duration: 12 minutes 35 seconds; Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery. © Wangechi Mutu.
- Carrie Mae Weems (American, born 1953), Untitled (Woman with daughter), from the series Kitchen Table, 1990, gelatin silver prints, each image/sheet: 27 1/4 in x 27 1/4 in, Gift of the Contemporary Art Council. Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon, 94.19a-c.
- Isaac Julien, Rapture 1846 (Lessons of the Hour), 2019, photograph on matt structured paper mounted on aluminium, 59 1/8 x 82 5/8 inches, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London/Venice.
- Washington, D.C. Dresser in the bedroom of Mrs. Ella Watson, a government charwoman, 1942. LOC 2017765109.