Paying Homage to the Genius of Black Artists

Sandra Bertrand


Invisibility is a terrible thing.  But that’s exactly where African-American artists and their art found itself for too long.  Director Jacques Goldstein’s new documentary, Black is the Color: A History of African American Art, sets the record straight once and for all.  Decade after decade, he has unearthed the remarkable artworks and their creators that have been right under our nose all along.


Consider what’s wrong with this picture:  As late as 1969, the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted a major exhibit called “Harlem on My Mind.”  The only problem?  The exhibition had no work by African-American artists.  Such an oversight may seem absurd, if not for the fact this racial blindness had been the norm for too long.  It was almost a century before the Met acquired “Let My People Go,” (1935-39), a majestic painting by Aaron Douglas, a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance.  Based on the dialogue between Moses and God, the artist’s embattled Black subject stands with arms uplifted, caught in a sun beam of heavenly light. 


The director has laid out his argument against such oversights in a chronological order, bringing to light for the viewer some amazing talents. Their stories are enhanced by a generous amount of archival footage and insights by historians, professors and gallery owners which help to personalize their struggles.  When visibility did present itself on the historical socio-cultural stage, an avalanche of negative imagery was the result—toys, posters, and minstrel stereotypes in early films.


It’s a story told in broad strokes, from the Emancipation Act of 1867 through the ugly specter of segregation followed by the Civil Rights movement to the present day. A tall order to deliver in 53 minutes, so one can only hope that it will encourage any art lover or concerned citizen to seek out the lives that informed this larger arena.  Such a complex history begs the question: Is it possible for the Black artist—given the freedom to create art as art in the wake of such a history of subjugation and racial upheaval—to even make such a choice?



The film is strongest when it focuses on the individual artist, in some instances a long-overlooked glimpse into lives we often didn’t know existed.  Take, for instance, Edmonia Lewis, whose sculpture “Forever Free” from 1867 is an artistic marvel in white marble.  It portrays a black man and child, sculpted in a classical style that could stand beside any Greek sculpture in a major museum.  Lewis eventually went into exile in Rome, undoubtedly seeking out a more accepting environment for her inspiration. 


Henry Ossawa Tanner was known in artistic circles as the first Black celebrity painter.  He attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, followed by his studies in Paris at Academie Julian.  His talents came to light early thanks to the encouragement of portrait painter Thomas Eakins.  Tanner’s “Banjo Lesson” is a beautiful portrayal of a Black instructor and his pupil and stands as much as a testament to learning and generational support as it does to a depiction of Black subjects.  Horace Pippin’s depictions of Black soldiers at the end of the First World War are mentioned.  The artist’s intention was to ensure that such contributions would not be erased—a hard challenge considering American officers did not want such soldiers to obtain formal training and put them instead under French command.


By 1940 Jacob Lawrence emerged with a series of 60 canvases detailing compelling domestic and social scenes—part of its power is in the painter simultaneously laying corresponding colors across the entire spectrum of his creation.  His was not a naturalistic narrative but a way of turning simple storytelling into myth.  There are others, like Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis, the latter a proponent of Social Realism, only later distinguishing himself as an early Abstract Expressionist.  His contemporary, Elizabeth Catlett, was deeply moved by the Civil Rights struggles of her time and portrayed sharecroppers and activists among her subjects. 


Understandably, the documentary stands as a historical overview of Black artists and where they fit in their respective times.  There are some live sequences with contemporary artists and this reviewer could only wish there were more—one documentary is not enough to contain all the worthy and extraordinary creative individuals at work today.  Whitfield Lovell, born in the Bronx in 1959, is shown in his studio with several of his stunning portraits of Black Americans, presented on antique wooden panels.  His 1999 installation, “Whispers from the Walls”, was a recreation of a small house, replete with spinning wheels, frying pans, musical instruments and a panoply of found objects.  Ellen Gallagher, born in Rhode Island in 1965, is well acquainted with carpentry, having worked in a saw yard building box molds for cement.  That hands-on approach has served her well.  Her fingers are on the pulse of pop culture—her work making statements on wigs and skin products, for instance, targeting Black women.



One regrettable omission in Goldstein’s documentary is Betye Saar, a 93-year-old Los Angeles based artist whose moving assemblages will be given a retrospective this fall at the Museum of Modern Art.   Recently and unapologetically, African-American women have entered the art scene in greater numbers, such as Amy Sherald, born in 1973 in Columbus, Georgia, and based in Baltimore.  Sherald burst on the art world with her portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama and is currently featured in a Hauser & Wirth exhibit with a series of stunning portraits. 


Perhaps the director will consider the making of Part Two as a living history of African-American Art.  Worthy subjects should be easy to find, their artworks showing up on the doorsteps of our major national and international museums.  Visibility is finally within reach. 


For more information about the film, visit


Author Bio:


Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief art critic.


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