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Artists, Movements, and Exhibitions to Celebrate This Black History Month

February is as much about celebrating past accomplishments that form the foundations of black creativity as it is about claiming a black future.
Wadsworth Jarrell, Revolutionary, 1972.Courtesy of the artist. © MCA Chicago

With the recent passing of the great American artist Thornton Dial, one of the facts of his life cited in the art world’s farewell to him was that he wasn’t discovered until he was well into middle age. This point represents a larger problem of visibility that black artists face in America. It is also the reason that Black History Month is as much about celebrating past accomplishments that form the foundations of black creativity as it is about claiming a black future.


Contemporary black artists, institutions, and art movements have been working to create works and spaces that will establish a future history for blackness. A blackness not told solely through the lens of black trailblazers who exhibited excellence in white spaces, but also through a developed cultural vocabulary that hues towards an articulation of black genius built upon the successes of history.

Untitled, Awol Erizku. Courtesy of the artist

The Paradox of Education, 2013, charcoal and pastel on paper. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

1. The Black Avant-Garde Movement

Jennie C. Jones, Score for Sustained Blackness Set 2, 2014, Acrylic paint, collage, and music staff ink pen on paper, One of ten, each 20 x 16 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jones & Co., New York

Recent shows have focused on the black avant-garde movements that began around the Civil Rights Movement. Shows at The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (Read: Chicago’s Black Avant-Garde Art and Music Tradition Goes on Display) outline the historical importance and impact the black avant-garde played in shaping contemporary art and establishing a visual aesthetic that accompanied demands for freedom. At the Contemporary Art Museum of Houston, artist Jennie C. Jones' exploration of the free jazz in her abstraction (Read: Sound Paintings Tell Stories of the Black Avant-Garde) shows how the artists and musicians from the moment are still helping to shape the questions today's artists are asking through their work.

2. The Black Internet Art Movement

Tabita Rezaire, Afro Cyber Resistance (Still), 2014. Courtesy of Kimberly Drew

As a response to the Eurocentric nature of the art history, internet-empowered groups have carved out spaces for the celebration of black artists and works detailing the black experience that aren’t often found in museums and gallery spaces. Kimberly Drew’s Black Contemporary Art archival efforts (Read: Can Tumblr Preserve Black Contemporary Art), The Lonely Londoners collective’s move to exhibit emerging black artists (Read: Internet-born Artist Collective Provides IRL Spaces for People of Color), Arts.Black’s clarion call for black art critics (Read: Can a New Website Save Black Arts Criticism?), and the Generation Z-led Art Hoe collective (Read: Can The “Art Hoe Movement Change Contemporary Art?) are rallying youths of color to claim their narratives artistically. These groups collectively are leading explorations into archiving existing black voices and encouraging future practitioners.


3. The Last 40 years of Black Contemporary Art

Number 10C Wood and paint, Leonardo Drew. Courtesy of the artist

As museums rush to edit their collections of visual history to include contributions by black artists, there are works over the last 40 years that have not been seen by the greater public. Artists like Thornton Dial (Read: A Requiem for Thornton Dial, American Artist), Leonardo Drew (Read: Colossal Wood Sculptures Track Death and Regeneration), and Nari Ward (Read: Timeless Symbols Pack Nari Ward’s Sculptures with Meaning) represent a generation of artists whose use of abstraction complicated understandings of what black artists could be. The traveling exhibition 30 Americans, recently on view at the Detroit Institute of Art (Read: Detroit Exhibition Showcases 30 Years of Black Contemporary Art), highlights some of the most iconic works created by black artists celebrated by the art world. Nick Cave’s takeover of Detroit (Read: [Exclusive] A 30-Second Tour of Nick Cave’s Detroit Takeover), with his street performances and retrospective at Cranbrook Academy, provide a glimpse into the last 25 years of his practice.

4. Black Performance Art

DISCOTROPIC: ep. 3 rhythmic decay from niv Acosta on Vimeo. Discotropic ep.3 Rhythmic Decay, 2015, niv Acosta. Courtesy the artist.

Increasingly, artists are incorporating performance into their practices. For black artists like niv Acosta (Read: Sci-Fi and Twerking Explore the Black Body in This Performance Art Series), Derrick Adams (Read: Britain’s First Black Circus Gets a Live Radio Art Tribute), Kia Labeija (Read: Kia Labeija Tracks the Influence of HIV/AIDS on Contemporary Art), and Rashaad Newsome (Read: [Exclusive] Hip-Hop, Voguing, and Heraldry Meet in Rashaad Newsome’s New Video), performance is a way to further explore sexuality, identity, and history in real time.


5. The Studio Museum in Harlem

Avonte, 2015 Acrylic on moving blanket and felt blanket with elastic rope and metal grommets 81 × 72 × 7 in, Eric Mack. Courtesy the artist and Company Gallery, New York

Since the late 1960s, the Studio Museum in Harlem has served as a space for black artists to enter the institutionalized art world. The Studio Museum continues its mission of showing newer black voices through its residency program (Read: Meet the Artists-in-Residence at The Studio Museum in Harlem). The residency that launched painter Kehinde Wiley and recently artist Eric Mack’s careers gives emerging black artists a space to develop and explore themes that push their respective practices. Recent shows like A Constellation (Read: A ‘Constellation of 26 Artists Represents the African Diaspora) also serve to shows that the museum continues to be one of the best museums in world to see black contemporary art.

6. Emerging Black Artists

Miles and Jojo, oil on canvas, 2015 / courtesy of Jordan Casteel

Right now, there's an entire generation of black artists who are developing their voices around the world. Clotilde Jiménez’s recent series of self-portraits explore the intersections of blackness and homosexuality (Read: Collage Portraits Explore Violence Against Queer Black Males). The Los Angeles-based conceptual artist Awol Erizku's photography, paintings, and mixtapes position black figures in the center of art history (Read: Awol Erizku Talks Creative Voice and Duchamp Detox Clinic). Martine Syms’ show, Vertical Elevated Oblique, explores the connections between black gestures, language, and modes of appropriation (Read: A GIF Catalog of Black Women’s Body Language). Painter Jordan Casteel’s fresh depictions of everyday black males provide visibility to a lived experience that is often misunderstood (Read: Making Black Men Visible—By Paintings Them Together). Adam Pendleton represents a growing number of black artists who are exploring the current Black Lives Matter Movement place in contemporary art conversations (Read: Black Lives Matter” Makes it to the Venice Biennale). These artists together raise questions about what it means to be black in 2016 and beyond.


7. The Black Diaspora

Paul Sika, Dandelia #1, 2012. Photographic print mounted on light box, edition of 2. 60 x 90 cm / 23.62 x 35.43 in. Courtesy of Galerie Cécile Fakhoury

An increasing number of artists, art fairs, and galleries are exploring the global black experience. Artist Hank Willis Thomas staged a show in South Africa that brought together an international group of artists to explore blackness through a myriad of perspectives (Read: Nina Simone’s “Young, Gifted, and Black Inspires an Exhibition in South Africa). The 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair made its debut in Brooklyn, showcasing some of Africa’s most prominent and emerging voices (Read: The World’s Largest Contemporary Art Show Comes To Brooklyn). El Anatsui’s Five Decades tracked the work of the prolific sculptor who also won the highest honor at The 2015 Venice Biennale, the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement (Read: Woven Aluminum Tapestries Anchor a Legendary Ghanaian Artist’s Retrospective).

So, what artists, movements, and exhibitions will you be celebrating Black History Month with? Let us know @CreatorsProject or in the comments below.


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