The Urgent Need To Train Writers To Effectively Explain Black Art
By Richard Allen May III and Natasha Gural
Appreciating art is an intrinsic part of human life, enabling us to understand the human condition by blistering interaction with others and the world in general. Visual art can heal, emotionally and physically. It teaches us about cultures and traditions that shape our worldview. Art tells stories, sparks inspiration, and fuels thinking. But not everyone can gaze at a canvas or a tapestry or a monumental installation and feel an immediate connection. Contemporary art is especially challenging, even for folks who have an understanding of art history and the creative process, as the meaning is often buried in abstraction or other messages. Art viewers rely on writers who can clearly yet eloquently describe what we’re viewing and the important critical, social, and historical context of each work.
More problematic, the theoretical framework of many past survey texts on African American art was limited to a formalist, biographical, historical approach. There is an urgent need for trained writers who consistently produce art reviews, catalogue essays, and books that analyze African American art from an interdisciplinary, critical perspective employing various types of methodologies, as well as creating new ways to discuss the work while at the same time making it accessible to readers. There continues to be a plethora of African American artists who create work worthy of unpacking and deconstructing, but a dearth of art writers who are equipped for such rigorous analysis. More worrisome is the dearth of African American writers who can effectively write about African American art.
Besides exhibition catalogues, the availability of two publications on African American art before the Black Arts Movement foreshadowed the necessity for more art writers. These were Modern Negro Art by James Porter (1943) and American Negro Art by Cedic Dover (1960). Similarly, additional survey texts on African American art near the zenith of the Black Arts Movement were published. In retrospect, these texts filled art-historical canon gaps, but through a myopic lens regarding critical analysis.
The early 20th century had key individuals. First, there was Alain Locke, aesthetic architect of the Harlem Renaissance, founder of the “New Negro” movement in the mid-1920s, first African American Rhodes Scholar and professor of philosophy at Howard University for over forty years. Then, there was James Porter- artist, art professor, head of Howard University Art Department. Although Locke and Porter disagreed on the “look” of Black art, both represented two streams of thought leading to a larger ocean-namely the critical review, documentation, preservation and recognition of African American artists.
The mid- to late-20th century brought Dr. Samella Lewis, first African American earning a Ph.D. in art history. The value of art writers was evident in her establishing the International Review of African American Art journal. Lewis along with Ruth Waddy, printmaker and founder of Art West Associated, also wrote Black Artists on Art Volume 1 ( 1969 ) and Black Artists on Art Volume 2 ( 1971).
Emerging at the same time in Los Angeles, Cecil Fergerson became known as the Godfather & the Community Curator by artists he mentored, like muralists Richard Wyatt Jr. and Noni Olabisi. Fergerson began his employment as a janitor at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1948. By 1964, he rose to art preparator, co-founded in 1968 the Black Arts Council ( BAC) and in 1972, was promoted assistant curator, becoming LACMA’s first African American curator in Los Angeles history. After retiring in 1985, Fergerson continued to organize and curate exhibitions for Black artists including a three venue exhibition- African American Representations of Masculinity, responding to the Whitney Museum’s Black Male exhibition curated by Thelma Golden that traveled to the UCLA Hammer Museum. Similar to Locke and Porter, Fergerson and Golden also expressed two different streams of thought, enriching the discourse surrounding Black male portrayal in art with exhibition essays communicating their curatorial vision.
Finally, there is artist and entrepreneur Charles Bibbs, founder of Art 2000 Visual Artist Association, Art On Tour, Images magazine, the Inland Empire Music and Arts Foundation, two publishing and distribution companies, the former B Graphics and Fine Arts, and his current company, Studio B Art. Through Images magazine, he provided opportunities for art writers.
Ultimately, Locke, Porter, Lewis, Waddy, Fergerson, Golden, and Bibbs all understood that art writers are necessary.
With the exception of AFRICOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) who intentionally came together and named themselves, other major art movements were named by art writers/critics including Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art.
Art chronicles our ancestries, our triumphs and defeats, and our myriad emotions and contemplations. It’s indispensable. Ancient Greek art was largely focused on chronicling and celebrating the achievements of human beings. Much of Greek art was created to honor the gods, and those gods were created to represent human beings, making art and architecture an essential vehicle to convey ideas of democracy, wisdom, and religion. Massive cultural shifts over centuries have reshaped how we view and analyze art. The art world is ruled by the elite buyers and sellers, as with any industry, but art is meant to be appreciated by all. Powerful art writing is the guide that enables anyone to achieve that goal.
Artists are increasingly pressured to write about their work, far beyond creating an artist’s statement. Imagine an editor suggesting a writer create a large-scale sculpture or a watercolor painting to better illustrate their thesis. Visual art and literature share deep ties throughout history, but the presumption that one person can both write and paint, draw, sculpt, or create any visual art with the same skill and intention is absurd. Writers require explicit instruction on how to thoughtfully express their views and understanding of art, artists, and the art world.
“I found that, over the years, a lot of the paintings that I make conducted earlier writings from Black female writers. And that’s usually what I do like I Google quotes on the internet. I buy lots of poetry books, because sometimes a line of poetry … that’s in the middle of a poem will resonate for me,” Amy Sherald told Franklin Sirmans, Director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami, during a virtual walkthrough in March, ahead of her first solo West Coast exhibition at Hauser & Wirth’s Downtown Arts District complex in Los Angeles.
Pointing to her painting of a Black figure wearing a tunic with a bird silhouette, Sherald said she named it after an Emily Dickinson poem called Hope is the thing with feathers. “I don’t know whether it’s a handicap or not, but I like doing it that way. … (Painting) is my first language, you know, and words, words come later … like much later for me, though. There’s times that I’ve named the work and then renamed it a year later because I thought of the right title.”
As American culture refreshes its embrace of Black art, we need to be especially mindful of how living and dead artists are described and categorized. The canonized machine, composed of collectors, museums, auction houses, galleries, and curators, and a few widely-read art critics, omits the methodically critical and accessible voice needed to promote a more equitable marketplace. Tired language and jargon that’s meaningless and misused outside an academic setting draws us further away from collectively participating in the art world in any capacity.
Writing about Black or African or African diaspora art is especially complicated, as the cannon has long undermined the accomplishments of Black artists. As the art market clamors for representation of BIPOC artists, there is an over-saturation of content that doesn’t begin to scratch the surface.
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For educator, artist, and scholar Richard Allen May III, writing the Foreword to the 2020 book AFRICOBRA: Experimental Art Toward a School of Thought by founding member Wadsworth A. Jarrell culminated close to two decades of original, independent research on the seminal African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists art movement founded in 1968 in Chicago. Having his exhibition reviews and curator profiles published in the Los Angeles-based arts magazine, Artillery, positioned May as one of the leading cultural critics in California’s Inland Empire. In fact, his recent reviews of significant exhibitions included Charles White: A Retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983 at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles. Complementing his professional writing experience is two decades of teaching several college courses including African American Literature, English Composition, Public Speaking and Small Group Communication. His scholarly research on African American art was welcomed at the College Art Association in 2010, the New Critical Perspectives on African American art conference held at the David Driskell Center in 2008 and the San Jose State Art History Symposium in 2007. May’s commitment for mentoring a new generation of art writers resulted in being hired by the Riverside County Office of Education in California to develop a distance education course using Canvas as a platform for students in grades 9th -12th to access. His course, Art History: A Multicultural Interdisciplinary Approach, served 300 students within six Riverside County school districts.
Natasha Gural is a multiple award-winning journalist, writer, and editor with 30 years of editorial experience, including executive roles at The Associated Press, Dow Jones, and Markets Media. A student of literature, art history, and studio art, Natasha has learned from leading scholars at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Oxford University, Clark University, and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Natasha has been writing about art since 2002, for multiple publications, including The Associated Press and Forbes. She has traveled extensively to cover major art fairs and events, interviewing a wide array of world-renowned and emerging artists, as well as curators, art historians, collectors, scholars, and aesthetes. Her last contact with the global art world was covering TEFAF Maastricht in 2020. Natasha enjoys observing every level of the creative process, from inception to installation, in studios, galleries, and various spaces. Passionate about the art world, Natasha embraces every opportunity to engage key players to better understand and explain the changing dynamic. She seeks to accurately portray the art ecosystem in an ongoing process that immerses her in the art world. A first-generation American, Natasha was raised bilingual and has always been drawn to the innovators, rebels, and outsiders who break down boundaries and strive to broaden the continuum of art history. Her goal is always to fairly and accurately represent the accomplishments of artists in an effort to collectively celebrate the arts.
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