In 1976, artist and curator David Driskell’s traveling exhibition, Two Centuries of Black American Art, shined a light on the contributions that African Americans made to the world of art. In acclaimed filmmaker Sam Pollard’s new documentary, Black Art: In the Absence of Light (which debuts on HBO today, Feb. 9), begins with the release of this monumental exhibit, and how Black art has progressed in America since.
Pollard tells Complex that it was Henry Louis Gates who approached HBO about doing a documentary on Driskell’s exhibition and that he “was brought in about a year later to be a director.” He remembers initially linking up with Driskell in January of 2019. “[We] spent an evening with him having dinner and talking about the genesis of the exhibit, how he came to curate it, the artists he wanted to include. Six months, seven months later, we flew and drove up to Maine, where he has a summer house, and we spent two days with David. Him talking about his history and going to Howard University, learning about the art world, becoming an artist, becoming a historian and curator, and his rationale behind the artists he included in Two Centuries of Black American Art. It was a wonderful experience spending time with David.”
Artist Sanford Biggers, who is featuring in Black Art, remembers seeing the book as a youth, “somewhere between 11 and 12” years of age, and is something he looks back on as being a “reassurance” of being able to grow up and become an artist as a Black man living in America. “I was already interested in art, but I was exposed to that book and a few other books and seeing a lot of art at that time. It just seemed like something that said, ‘Yes, this is a viable career option or a valuable thing to pursue.’” Black Art celebrates some of the triumphs of today’s Black artists like Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, who painted the official portraits of Barack Obama and Michelle Obama that debuted in 2018. It also featured Radcliffe Bailey, who told the story on how he happened upon a bunch of discarded piano keys that he turned into a moving piece on the Middle Passage.
“One of the things that I find so fascinating about Radcliffe’s work,” Pollard shares, “is that how he melds both his artistic sensibility with his historical sensibility about family and community. Basically, understanding the importance of our history from the slave trade up to the present and being able to say, ‘I’m going to meld that in the creation of my art.’” Biggers elaborated on why this combination of sensibilities is necessary in Black art. “I think it’s important that Black artists bring visual imagery and references of our past,” Biggers explains, “whether it be abduction from Africa or the various periods of our engagement here in the United States of America.” Biggers also points out that these pieces and messages shouldn’t be all Black artists are looked upon to do.
“It’s very important to have artists of color expressing all kinds of different ideas,” Biggers says. “So it’s not just looking at the history, but also projecting the future. I see as much importance in the work of Kerry James Marshall, [or] somebody like Torkwase Dyson, who’s doing abstract work because that’s another place in history where we are. We’re at a place where we can express abstract. We’ve always been able to express abstractly. It’s just whether the world could understand or even receive abstract information from us. We have the right to be opaque sometimes. It’s not always about some of the stories that are when we get it right away. It’s actually challenging people to see things [through] a different lens. It might take them a while to do it, but the challenge is worth it.”
Black Art also examines the response to these works in the mainstream. Driskell’s exhibit has the attention of the public, more so than other exhibits of its day. But now, the magnificent work of modern artists are being added to the private art collections of hip-hop royalty like Swizz Beatz and Jay-Z, which Pollard felt necessary to include in this documentary. “I think it’s important for a younger generation of African American youngsters [and] young adults to see that people like Swizz and Beyoncé & Jay-Z and Sean Puffy Combs—people that they learn to admire—that these people understand the importance of collecting Black art and challenging hopefully a generation of young African Americans, saying, ‘We need to learn these names. We need to know who Kerry James Marshall is, we need to know who Kara Walker is.’”
Black Art: In Absense of the Light is a documentary that drew inspiration from a collection of Black artists that were underrepresented when conversations about art took place is being seen by some Black Americans for the first time, placed in one space by David Driskell for his Two Centuries of Black American Art exhibition. The documentary educates us about Driskell’s curation but then lets us walk into the studios of many artists who were creating at the time, which Pollard said fascinates him. “To be with Amy Sherald at her studio in Brooklyn,” Pollard admits. “Watching these artists creating. You can’t ask for better, to be in that close. To be in Kerry James Marshall’s space, that’s one of the most important things for us all to understand: The importance of the process of creating. That, to me, is a fabulous pleasure, and it answers the question people ask sometimes: This is not just a job for me. This is like a pleasure. How humans work, it’s a real pleasure.”
Black Art: In Absence of the Light premieres on HBO and HBO Max on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021