by Debora Hand
Black Art is about to explode into the mainstream. It is about to realize the greatest worldwide popularity in its entire history. I say that as a confirmed visionary, so I probably need to drop some credentials here to help with credibility.
I have this thing where I can begin to see the disparate elements of something coming into view as something fully formed, long before it becomes that form. For example, about 25 years ago, I saw the future of corporations having 100% work-from-home employees. You have to understand that this thought happened in a world where that kind of notion didn’t exist in employment. I saw this 100% work-from-home concept because I was responsible for overseeing the installation and rollout of equipment and technology that allowed travelling employees to remotely login to their corporate databases.
Although I could then work from home on some days, I felt like the arrangement could work 100% for our entire department. Upon suggesting the concept, my boss wondered how we could know if people were working if no one was coming into the office. I told her, if the only way to know someone is producing is to physically watch over them, then we probably had the wrong metrics in place for measuring true production. She agreed and told me to write the proposal up. I did, and became the first 100% work-from-home employee. How many do you suppose there are now?
My second episode of proof-of-world-vision happened over 20 years ago when, for my Master’s Degree final project, I proposed and completed a business plan that expanded the concept of corporations using video-conferencing to replace out-of-town and other unnecessary travel. Although I did not invent either of the aforementioned technologies, I did foresee the potential of a much more comprehensive application of both, even back when bandwidth was limited. The application of these technologies that we see today, I saw then. Today, everyone can name a video-conferencing company they are relying on to make it in life as they work from home.
Today, we take both these ways-of-life for granted, but back then, these proposals sounded outrageous.
I said all that to say that I do have a real-life track record of seeing things that are inevitable once enough of the parts emerge into view.
Looking at Black art, the mainstream art world, and the sudden rise in social consciousness, I’m seeing all the factors necessary for the greatest Black Art boom the world has ever known. I am seeing the needed elements floating around the ether in near enough proximity to bang together and form a new order for Black art.
While the historic track record on Black creativity is indisputable—and bringing more of that ingenuity to the forefront in the mainstream art world is both much needed and long overdue—for now, I’ll focus on why my prediction will manifest.
Being Black in America is finally a mainstream topic for people of every color, nation, gender and religion. Across the globe, millions are examining what it means to be Black in America, what the ramifications and experiences have been. They are looking at how this aspect of humanity has played-out throughout history, and how it is still impacting the current social structure of supposedly one of the greatest countries produced by mankind.
There is so much historical and current truth to be filled in by art; to be presented to the scores of both Black and White Americans searching themselves for deeper consciousness and stepping up to join the fight for equality. There are so many stories by Black artists to be discovered and learned from by those of every race who are in solidarity with this movement.
Where Black lives are suddenly mattering and being fought for through a global movement not seen before in history, Black art will likewise matter. Through Black art, the need for both context and content for this global movement will be supplied. Through Black art, new ways for humanity to examine its own flaws and ideals will be imagined, and re-imagined. Through Black art, history will be filled-in for those longing for understanding, but this time told on a mainstream stage by artists living through the experience of being Black. Through Black art, a new genre of beauty will live in the mainstream art world. Through Black art, the art world will finally get to fully experience the unique creative insights and techniques developed and evolved through centuries of a cultural heritage where “making something from nothing” is intuitive…a cultural heritage where invention and creativity has been perpetually honed and handed along.
Long story, short: a change is coming to the mainstream art world on every level where it operates and it will not be small.
So much Black history has been excluded from history that artists will be filling in the headlines, gaps and crevices for decades to come.
Currently, in record fashion, the history of Black art is being studied. Gaps in collections are being filled. Black artists providing narratives of Black life are needed to fill-in the stories, not just of Black pain, but also Black beauty which mainstream art has been blatantly devoid of; along with topics of Black culture, Black pride, Black tradition, and other aspects of Black humanity – all told through unique creative processes and perspectives.
Suddenly it is socially relevant to care about Black people “out loud.” And for a museum or other cultural institution to fail to be relevant in this new day is the same as that institution flashing a marquee that declares itself socially and culturally irrelevant for all the world to see.
I know some will say we have seen this kind of upsurge in interest in Black art before, but this time is different. No Black art movement has ever before been accompanied by this kind of global shift in social consciousness toward Black people. Not only that, but this historic shift is accompanied by a historic pandemic that is, on its own, inducing systemic change in the museum world.
Museums are fighting for their own survival. They must pick a side, and as they do, the world is watching and waiting to see the messages that show up on those marquees.
There are a lot of changes happening in the structure of the art world. Some we have yet to see play out. But one thing is clear. The giant painting of the wide-eyed face of a Black boy that might have been traditionally ignored by the mainstream art world, suddenly resonates with profound meaning.
The work of Black artists can now speak in its own right, on its own merits without having to be sanctioned by those who it previously had no visceral resonance for. Suddenly, everyone can extract meaning from the eyes of an innocent Black child looking toward the future. Is it apprehension in the eyes, is it fear, is it hope, is it anger? How is society contributing to or stifling each of these emotional states? Rather than this painting being dismissed by curators for lacking critical content, now that same painting overflows with context and critical substance. Today both artists and collectors are embarking on a deeper investigation of what it means to be a young Black child faced with the pride, yet predicament, of existing in Black skin. Suddenly there is scholarship being created around these questions, these issues: this pain, this beauty, this pride, and the cultural shorthand that goes with the painted face of a Black person.
Black collectors seeking a deeper connection with culture and identity are being drawn to Black imagery. White collectors seeking deeper understanding are being drawn to Black imagery. Museums and cultural institutions seeking relevance are being drawn to Black imagery. People who have never thought of purchasing art before are being drawn to Black imagery to help fill their homes with messages that reinforce cultural pride.
And, of course, you can’t leave out the financial side of this equation. There’s the attraction of Black art as the new undiscovered investable instrument that could pay off big if you buy early.
Speaking as a visionary, everything I see in my field of vision tells me that Black art is about to dominate mainstream art headlines in a way we have never before known in art history.
In fact, the change has already begun. The once off-limits conversation about what constitutes “great art” or “relevant art” is no longer controlled exclusively by a select few insiders with their own pre-ordained ideology of which cultures should be honored, and which should not. Instead, the world has taken over the conversation.
For everyone reading this, I hope you consider yourself to be a vital part of the dialogue. If not, please join the conversation by allowing the beauty and power of Black art to enter your life in some way. It will add great meaning and depth to your existence.
As always, we’d love for you to share your opinion in the comment’s section below where you can also find a link to share this article.
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Debra Hand is a museum-collected sculptor, painter, and writer. She is the creator of the historic bronze statue of Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dunbar Park. Among the history makers who own her works are former President Barack Obama; Hillary Clinton; Harry Belafonte; Cicely Tyson; Smokey Robinson; Yo-Yo Ma; Spike Lee; Seal; Sinbad; and the renowned sculptor, Richard Hunt; the late Winnie Mandela, and the late Dr. Maya Angelou also owned her work. Debra Hand holds a Master of Science Degree from the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University. She is a self-taught artist whose talent was discovered by the legendary Dr. Margaret Burroughs, principal founder of the DuSable Museum. It was Burroughs who arranged for Hand’s first public exhibit.
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