Fallen Through The Cracks – A Look at History’s Underrated Black Art Pioneers

Fallen Through The Cracks – Ruth Gilliam Waddy

May 18th – FallenThroughTheCracksRuth Gilliam Waddy was born Willanna Ruth Gilliam on January 7, 1909, in Lincoln, Nebraska, and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She was an American artist, printmaker, activist, and editor who was known for her practice of linocut printmaking and was in her fifties when she turned to art as a career. Her highly contracted prints featured stories about African-American visibility. 

She attended the University of Minnesota with hopes of teaching but had to leave school to help support her family during the Great Depression. She moved with her young daughter to Los Angeles to find work as a riveter at Douglas Aircraft Corporation. After the war, she worked at a county hospital, where one of her co-workers was artist Noah Purifoy. In 1966, her work was part of “The Negro in American Art,” a traveling exhibition funded by the California Arts Commission and took on a cross-country bus trip to collect artworks for Prints by American Negro Artists (1967). With artist Samella Lewis, she edited Black Artists on Art (1969 and 1971). Waddy and Lewis are considered to be two of the “founding mothers” of the Black Arts Movement in California. She founded an organization of artists called Art West Associated which extended the groundbreaking work of co-op galleries and helped promote the work of Black artists in the 60s and 70s in Los Angeles. She was one of twelve African-American artists honored by the Los Angeles Bicentennial in 1981, received an honorary doctorate from Otis Art Institute in 1987, and received a lifetime achievement award from the Women’s Caucus for Art in 2001. Her papers are at the Amistad Research Center, Tulane University. Ruth G. Waddy died on May 24, 2003, at age 94, in San Francisco, California. (Text paraphrased from Wikipedia and Smithsonian).

Fallen Through The Cracks – William Henry Johnson

May 16th – FallenThroughTheCracks – William Henry Johnson was born on March 18, 1901, in Florence, South Carolina. He was a painter who worked with a variety of media, often just using the materials that were available on hand to create his work. His works emphasized vivid and vibrant colors alongside simplistic figures. His depictions of African American culture were pulled from his upbringing in the rural South. He immersed himself in African-American culture and traditions, from realism to expressionism to constructing images that were represented by their folk art plainness.

He moved to New York City at the age of 17 saving enough money to pay for classes at the National Academy of Design. In the fall of 1927, he moved to Paris, where he learned modernism, and had his first solo exhibition at the Students and Artists Club. He moved back to the U.S. in 1929 and fellow artists encouraged him to enter his work at the Harmon Foundation, and as a result, Johnson received the Harmon gold medal in fine arts. Johnson ultimately found work as a teacher at the Harlem Community Art Center where he and other teachers instructed about 600 students per week meeting important Harlem artists such as Gwendolyn Knight. William Henry Johnson no longer painted after 1955 and died on April 13, 1970, in Central Islip, NY. The William H. Johnson Foundation for the Arts was established in 2001 in honor of his 100th birthday and has awarded the William H. Johnson Prize annually to an early career African American artist. In 2012, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in Johnson’s honor, recognizing him as one of the nation’s foremost African-American artists and a major figure in 20th-century American art. (Text paraphrased from Wikipedia and Smithsonian).

Fallen Through The Cracks – Nancy Elizabeth Prophet

May 15th – FallenThroughTheCracks – Nancy Elizabeth Prophet was born on March 19, 1890, in Warwick, Rhode Island. She was an artist of African-American and Native-American ancestry, known specifically for her sculpture. In 1914, at the age of 24, Prophet enrolled in the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. She was the only African American student and graduate amongst a predominantly white female school population. After graduation, She attempted to find work as a portrait painter full-time but was unsuccessful.

She painted portraits of local residents to earn money to travel to France and in 1922, Prophet moved to Paris to study sculpture at L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts. She left the school because she believed she could teach herself faster than working under a mentor. One of her most prominent works, Negro Head, is a larger-than-life-size wooden sculpture. W.E.B. DuBois and Countee Cullen helped Prophet submit her work to exhibitions in the United States while she lived overseas and she won the Harmon Prize for Best Sculpture in 1929. In 1934, Prophet began teaching students at both #SpelmanCollege and #AtlantaUniversity, expanding the curriculum to include modeling and the history of art and architecture. She had hopes of encouraging the creative minds of youth, the encouragement she was not presented with during her early years as she often welcomed students to her own home. In 1935 and 1937, she participated in the #WhitneyMuseum Sculpture Biennials, and the Sculpture International exhibition at the #PhiladelphiaMuseumofArt in 1940. Her sculpture, #Congolaise, became one of the first works by an African American acquired by the Whitney Museum. Nancy Elizabeth Prophet died on December 13, 1960, in Providence, Rhode Island at the age of 70. (Text paraphrased from Wikipedia and Smithsonian).

Fallen Through The Cracks – Merton Simpson

May 11th – FallenThroughTheCracks – Merton Simpson was born on September 20, 1928, in Charleston, South Carolina. He was an abstract expressionist painter and African and tribal art collector and dealer. Growing up in a segregated South, Simpson was not allowed to take art classes at the city-run Gibbes Gallery where his mentor artist William Melton Halsey worked. In 1949, his wife Corrie, and former director of the Charleston Museum, Laura Bragg, sponsored his first solo art show. They held two separate receptions; “one for whites and one for whites who didn’t mind coming to a reception with blacks.”

Simpson was the first African American to receive a prestigious five-year fellowship from the Charleston Scientific and Cultural Education fund and left South Carolina for New York City after finishing high school. He took classes at New York University (NYU) during the day and at Cooper Union at night also working at a framing shop where well-known artists would frequent. He credited the frame shop for giving him his “real education”. In 1951 his work appeared in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and in 1954 his work was displayed in the Younger American Painters exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum. The Harlem Riot of 1964 which Simpson witnessed firsthand, had a particular impact on his painting. The artist responded by creating the so-called “Confrontation” series of painting series that featured schematized black and white faces inter-meshed in an intense encounter. The Merton D. Simpson Gallery of Modern and Tribal Arts is famous for its exceptional collection of Tribal arts and for artworks by his contemporaries. As his knowledge and experience in the field grew he eventually became known as one of the most prominent dealers of traditional African art in the world and the international art world at large. Merton Simpson died on March 9, 2013, in New York City. He was 84 years old. (Text paraphrased from Wikipedia and Smithsonian).

Fallen Through The Cracks – Valerie Jean Maynard

May 10th – FallenThroughTheCracks – Valerie Jean Maynard was born on August 22, 1937, in New York City, NY. She was a sculptor, teacher, printmaker, and designer who addressed themes of social inequality and the civil rights movement.

She studied painting and drawing at the Museum of Modern Art, printmaking at the New School for Social Research, and received a master’s degree in Art and Sculpture in 1977 at Vermont’s Goddard College. Maynard taught at the Studio Museum in Harlem, at Howard University, the University of the Virgin Islands, and the Baltimore School for the Arts. She specialized in the preservation and restoration of traditional art by people of color. She re-contextualized motifs from the Middle Passage and the Civil Rights Movement into her work, offering commentary on the struggle of those in the African diaspora to achieve and maintain equal rights. In January 1977, Maynard was part of a contingent of hundreds of African-American artists who represented the North American Zone, exhibiting in FESTAC 77, the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture in Lagos, Nigeria. In 2003, Maynard was commissioned to create a series of glass mosaic murals entitled Polyrhythmics of Consciousness and Light which is permanently installed in the subway station on 125th Street in New York City. In 2021, she received an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the Maryland Institute College of Art. Valerie Maynard died on September 19, 2022, in Baltimore, Maryland at the age of 85. (Text paraphrased from Wikipedia and Smithsonian).

Fallen Through The Cracks – Geoffrey Holder

May 8th – FallenThroughTheCracks – Geoffrey Lamont Holder was born on August 1, 1930, in Port of Spain, Trinidad. He was an actor, dancer, musician, and artist. He was educated at Tranquility School and Queen’s Royal College in Port of Spain but made his performance debut at seven years old in his brother Boscoe Holder’s dance company.

Seeing him perform in The Virgin Islands, choreographer Agnes de Mille invited Holder to work with her in New York where he joined Katherine Dunham’s dance school and taught folkloric forms. From 1955 to 1956, he performed with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet as a principal dancer but left the ballet to make his Broadway debut in the musical House of Flowers. In 1973, he played a henchman in the James Bond movie Live and Let Die and also contributed to the film’s choreography. In 1975, Holder won two Tony Awards for direction and costume design of The Wiz, the all-black musical version of The Wizard of Oz. He was the first black man to be nominated in either category. He also won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Costume Design. Holder was a prolific painter, ardent art collector, author, and music composer. As a painter, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship in fine arts in 1956. In popular culture, Holder is known for portraying Nelson in the 1992 film Boomerang with Eddie Murphy. Geoffrey Holder died in New York City on October 5, 2014, at the age of 84. (Text paraphrased from Wikipedia and Smithsonian).

Fallen Through The Cracks – Tina Allen

May 5th – FallenThroughTheCracks – Tina Allen was born Tina Powell on December 9, 1949m in Hempstead, New York. She was a sculptor known for her monuments to prominent African Americans. Her sculpture focused on writing black history in bronze and emphasizing the contributions and aspirations of the #AfricanDiaspora. She was 13 years old when she began sculpting. Instead of following the assignment to make an ashtray, she made a bust of Aristotle instead.

Allen graduated from the University of South Alabama with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1978. She also studied art at the New York School of Visual Arts, the Pratt Institute, and the University of Venice in Italy. Allen often focused on the #HarlemRenaissance. She studied historical figures and dreamed of portraying them through sculpture. Her first major work was a nine-foot bronze statue of A. Philip Randolph, leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was commissioned in 1986. Over the next two decades, Allen continued creating realistic sculptures of black activists for display in public spaces. One of her best-known works is a 13-foot bronze likeness of #AlexHaley, which was installed in the Haley Heritage Square Park in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1998. Her statue of #GeorgeWashingtonCarver is the focal point of the George Washington Carver Garden at the Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis. Her 12-foot bronze monument to #SojournerTruth is displayed in Memorial Park Battle Creek, Michigan and the bust of #FrederickDouglass is on display at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute; it was featured in a scene in the movie Akeelah and the Bee. Allen also crafted a bronze medallion for the Women of Essence awards, which annually honor Black women of outstanding accomplishment and achievement. Tina Allen passed away on September 9, 2008, in Los Angeles, CA. (Text paraphrased from Wikipedia and Extended Research).

Fallen Through The Cracks – Don Hogan Charles

May 4th – FallenThroughTheCracks – Don Hogan Charles was born “Daniel James Charles” on September 9, 1938, in New York City. He studied engineering at City College of New York before dropping out to pursue photography. He was the first African-American staff photographer hired by The New York Times. He remained on staff for 43 years until his retirement in 2007.

Charles started as a freelance photographer and appeared in major international publications with commercial clients including Oscar de la Renta, and Pan American World Airways. During his tenure at the New York Times, he photographed notable subjects including Coretta Scott King, John Lennon, Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali. His work focused on local hangouts and everyday people but he is most known for his extensive coverage of figures of the civil rights era. One of his most iconic photos is the photo of Malcolm X holding an M1 carbine while peeking out a window. The photo was commissioned by Ebony Magazine and became a symbol of the lengths the civil rights leader would go to, to protect his family. “By Any Means Necessary”. In 1967, Charles captured a photo of a young boy with his hands up walking in front of soldiers during the Newark riots, one of more than 150 racial riots in the country that summer. Charles’ work is in the collections of the Museum Of Modern Art and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Don Hogan Charles passed away on December 15, 2017, in Harlem, NY. (Text paraphrased from Wikipedia and Smithsonian).

Fallen Through The Cracks – Varnette Patricia Honeywood

May 3rd – FallenThroughTheCracks – Varnette Patricia Honeywood was born on December 27, 1950, in Los Angeles, CA. She was a painter, writer, and businesswoman who created paintings and collages depicting African-American life. She is highly regarded for her use of color and light, patterns, and textures. Creating positive visual images for Black children became one of her major goals. She focused on the history of African Americans, their sufferings and triumphs, and celebrates the strength and leadership of Black women. She often described her work as “figurative abstraction.”

She earned her Bachelor of Arts from Spelman in 1972, her Master of Science in Education, and her teaching credentials from the University of Southern California (USC) in 1974. She also earned an Honorary Doctorate in Fine Arts from Spelman College in 2005. Honeywood used her educational training to teach multicultural arts and crafts programs to minority children in public schools and as a graduate student, she taught art at the Los Angeles Central Juvenile Hall. Camille Cosby discovered Honeywood’s work on note cards and she and her husband Bill Cosby started collecting her works. This led to the inclusion of Honeywood’s artwork, including her 1974 painting “Birthday”, on the walls of the Huxtable living room on the set of The Cosby Show. She had been asked to create a painting to be included in the show’s pilot and different examples of her paintings were cycled through during the show’s run. Honeywood’s artwork can still be seen on various television shows, movies, and book covers. She is recognized by contemporary artists today for her significant contribution, helping to envision and shape Black visual culture. Varnette Honeywood died at age 59 on September 12, 2010, in Los Angeles after fighting cancer. (Text paraphrased from Wikipedia and Artist Website).

Fallen Through The Cracks – Frederick James Brown

May 2nd – FallenThroughTheCracks – Frederick James Brown was born on February 6, 1945, in Greensboro, Georgia. His family moved to Chicago and he was near the steel mills on Chicago’s Southside. There, he was exposed to the blues by musicians in the neighborhood such as #MuddyWaters and #HowlinWolf. Brown attended Chicago Vocational High School and then attended Southern Illinois University Carbondale, graduating in 1968 with a degree in Art.

In 1970, Brown moved from Chicago to New York City’s SoHo neighborhood which at the time was home to a variety of creatives. He collaborated with musicians, painters, and videographers and contributed to performing arts productions. The 2002 documentary film 120 Wooster Street depicts Frederick Brown’s loft studio, which grew to be a central gathering place for artists, musicians, writers, and dancers. Brown taught art at the Central College of Fine Arts in Beijing in 1985 and 1987. In 1988, he had the first solo exhibition by a Western artist at the Museum of the Chinese Revolution (now the National Museum of China) in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China exhibiting 100 pieces of artwork. His style ranges from abstract expressionism to figurative as his artwork was influenced by historical, religious, narrative, and urban themes. In September 2008 Brown organized a symposium of artists, musicians, dancers, and poets at Cornell University on the Creative Movement of the 1970s. His work is part of the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the National Portrait Gallery, as well as the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Mo. Frederick J. Brown, died on May 5th, 2012 in Scottsdale, AZ. (Text paraphrased from Wikipedia and Smithsonian).

Fallen Through The Cracks – Clementine Hunter

May 1st – FallenThroughTheCracks – Clementine Hunter was born in late December 1886 or early January 1887, at Hidden Hill Plantation, near Cloutierville in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana. She was a self-taught folk artist from the Cane River region of Louisiana, who lived and worked on Melrose Plantation. She started working as a farm laborer when young, and never learned to read or write but began to sell her paintings depicting Black Southern life in her fifties which gained local and national attention.

Her work illustrates brightly colored portrayals of funerals, baptisms, and weddings and scenes of plantation labor varying in subject and style, including many abstract paintings and still-life works. Initially, she sold her first paintings for as little as 25 cents and has become one of the most well-known self-taught artists being exhibited in museums and sold by dealers for thousands of dollars. She is the first African-American artist to have a solo exhibition at the present-day New Orleans Museum of Art. Hunter’s largest work is a series of murals in the African House at Melrose Plantation. She used paint left by visiting artists at Melrose Plantation, therefore she was working with other artists’ palettes. Hunter would frequently thin out her supply of paint with turpentine, creating more of a watercolor effect, which caused many Hunter scholars to believe she had a watercolor experimental phase. In February 1985, the museum hosted A New Orleans Salute to Clementine Hunter’s Centennial, an exhibit in honor of her one-hundredth birthday. She achieved significant recognition during her lifetime, including an invitation to the White House from U.S. President Jimmy Carter and letters from President Ronald Reagan and U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston, Jr. Clementine Hunter died on January 1, 1988, at the age of 101, in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana. (Text paraphrased from Wikipedia and Smithsonian).

Fallen Through The Cracks – John Woodrow Wilson

Apr 28th – FallenThroughTheCracks – John Woodrow Wilson in Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1922. He was a lithographer, sculptor, painter, muralist, and art teacher whose art was prompted by the social and political climate of his era. His work portrays themes of social justice and equality. Wilson was endorsed for his capability to unite his artistic creativity with his passion for politics and social justice.

One of Wilson’s most overtly politically charged works, a lithograph called “Deliver Us From Evil,” was created while he was a student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in 1943. In 1947, Wilson graduated from #TuftsUniversity while teaching at the Boris Mirski School of Modern Art. He won the James William Paige Traveling Fellowship and soon moved to Paris and studied with the modern artist #FernandLéger. In 1950, he won a John Hay Whitney fellowship and lived in Mexico for five years. Wilson was inspired by Mexican painter #JoséClementeOrozco, whose work focused primarily on political murals. When Wilson returned to the United States in 1956, he made artwork for labor unions in Chicago and taught for a bit in New York City before returning to Massachusetts in 1964 to teach at Boston University. Wilson’s most famous and viewed work is the bronze bust of #MartinLutherKingJr. that stands three feet tall in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. He won the sculptural commission in 1985 as part of a national competition to create a memorial statue of the civil rights leader. Wilson’s method for creating profound art can be seen in the sketches he made in preparation for the bust of King. John Woodrow Wilson died on January 22, 2015, at his home in Brookline, MA. He was 92 years old. (Text paraphrased from Wikipedia and Smithsonian).

Fallen Through The Cracks – Dr. Samella Lewis

Apr 27th – FallenThroughTheCracks – Dr. Samella Lewis was born ​​Samella Sanders Lewis on February 27, 1923, in New Orleans, Louisiana. She was a visual artist and art historian who worked primarily as a printmaker and painter. She has been referred to as the “Godmother of African American Art”.

She earned her Bachelor of Arts. degree at Hampton University and then completed her master’s and doctorate in art history and cultural anthropology at the Ohio State University in 1951 becoming the first female African American to earn a doctorate in fine art and art history. She became the first Chair of the Fine Arts Department at Florida A&M University in 1953 and also became the first African American to convene the National Conference of African American Artists. She was quoted as saying, “Art is not a luxury as many people think – it is a necessity. It documents history – it helps educate people and stores knowledge for generations to come.” – Dr. Samella Lewis Lewis’s work, which includes lithographs, linocuts, and serigraphs, reflected humanity and freedom. Lewis completed four degrees, five films, seven books, and a substantial body of artworks that have received critical respect. Lewis was an avid collector of art as a working artist with her collection beginning in 1942 and focused on artists who made work from WPA and the Harlem Renaissance. In 1984, she produced a monograph on artist Elizabeth Catlett, who had been one of Lewis’s mentors. She received the Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement from the College Art Association (CAA) in 2021. Dr Samella Lewis died on May 27, 2022, in Torrance, California, at the age of 99. (Text paraphrased from Wikipedia and Smithsonian).

Fallen Through The Cracks – Herbert Gentry

Apr 26th – FallenThroughTheCracks – Herbert Alexander Gentry was born on July 17, 1919, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His family moved to New York City and Gentry grew up in the city with The Harlem Renaissance as the backdrop. He pursued drawing in school and took art classes at the Harlem YMCA and later studied art as part of the Federal Art Project of the WPA (Works Progress Administration) at Roosevelt High School.

Gentry served in the U.S. Army (1942–45), serving in the 90th Coast Guard Artillery / Anti-Aircraft Regiment and working in Special Services. He was an African-American Expressionist painter whose paintings juxtapose faces and masks, shifting orientations of figures and heads—human and animal. These faces evoke subtle expressions and moods as Gentry releases his experiences upon the canvas. Romare Bearden once wrote that Gentry’s “method is conceptual rather than realistic.” Between 1975 and 1995, Gentry’s creative production was fueled by mobility. He was in continuous movement, traveling several times a year. He lived and worked in Paris, Copenhagen, and Stockholm among other European cities, and was a permanent resident of the Hotel Chelsea while in New York City. During this period he showed in Europe as an American artist, while in the United States, he was exhibited as an African-American artist. Gentry’s work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York); the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Hirshhorn Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem (New York), Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam, Netherlands), and the National Gallery of Modern Art (New Delhi, India). Herbert Gentry died on September 8, 2003, in Stockholm, Sweden. (Text paraphrased from Wikipedia and Smithsonian).

Fallen Through The Cracks – Gwendolyn Knight

Apr 25th – FallenThroughTheCracks – Gwendolyn Clarine Knight was born on May 26, 1913, in Bridgetown, Barbados, in the West Indies.

Her work concentrated on narrative paintings illustrating the life, culture, and history of African Americans, through still life, portraits, and urban scenes. From 1931 to 1933 she attended Howard University and because of financial hardship from The Great Depression, she had to drop out before receiving her degree. In 1934 she joined a Works Progress Administration (WPA) mural project, where she met her future husband and fellow painter, #JacobLawrence. The couple were married in 1941. She was employed by the Works Progress Administration as an assistant to muralist Charles Alston and also studied at the Harlem Community Art Center, where she was mentored by Augusta Savage. Through Savage, she was exposed to the work of great artists, writers, and poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Knight painted throughout her life but did not start seriously displaying her work until the 1970s with her first retrospective at nearly 90 years old. During her career, she received many awards, including the National Honor Award, and two honorary doctorate degrees, from the University of Minnesota and Seattle University. In 1993, Knight received the Women’s Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement Award. She was honored with the Caucus Centennial Medallion, from the Black Caucus. Gwendolyn Knight passed away in Seattle, Washington on February 18, 2005, at the age of 91. (Text paraphrased from Wikipedia and Smithsonian).

Fallen Through The Cracks – Arthur P. Bedou

Apr 24th – FallenThroughTheCracks – Arthur Paul Bedou was born on July 6, 1882, in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was a photographer who documented the life of black residents in New Orleans and was a personal photographer of Booker T. Washington who photographed the last decade of his life.

In 1903 Bedou documented a conference at the Tuskegee Institute with the hope of attaining visibility for his photos. Washington saw some of his photography and offered Bedou to accompany him and produce images of events. Many of the photos taken are between 1908 and 1915, the year Washington passed away. This relationship brought him further commissions, photographing noteworthy individuals like Theodore Roosevelt and George Washington Carver and also documenting campus life at the Xavier University of Louisiana and the Tuskegee Institute from about 1917 to the late 1950s. Through his connection to Washington, Bedou eventually became the official photographer of the Tuskegee Institute. He opened his own studio in the 1920s and photographed everything from families and their children to the Corpus Christi Church, Jazz Bands, and celebrity speakers. He photographed numerous events, activities, and portraits that often appeared in the Louisiana Weekly (a newspaper with a primarily black circulation) and in the Louisiana Times-Picayune. His pictures won several awards including the gold medal at the 1907 Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition. He left much of his fortune to educational institutions, and his wife, Lillia Bedou, founded the Arthur and Lillia Bedou Scholarship at the Xavier University of Louisiana. Xavier University Archives & Special Collections also holds an extensive collection of his photographs. Arthur Paul Bedou died on June 2, 1966, at the age of 83. (Text paraphrased from Wikipedia and Smithsonian).

Fallen Through The Cracks – Camille Billops

Apr 20th – FallenThroughTheCracks – Camille Josephine Billops was born on August 12, 1933, in Los Angeles, CA. She was a sculptor, filmmaker, archivist, printmaker, and educator whose primary visual art medium was sculpture. She later experimented with photography, printmaking, and painting.

She obtained her B.A. degree from California State University and her M.F.A. degree from City College of New York. Billops is best known as a filmmaker of the black diaspora. Billops’s film projects have been collaborations with, and stories about, members of her family. Suzanne, Suzanne studies the relationship between Billop’s sister Billie and Billie’s daughter Suzanne. Finding Christa deals with Billops’s daughter, whom she gave up for adoption. The film won the Grand Jury Prize for documentaries at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival. They were co-produced with her husband James Hatch. Responding to the lack of publications on African American art and culture, Billops and Hatch began collecting thousands of books and other printed materials, more than 1,200 interviews, and scripts of nearly 1,000 plays. Once housed in a 120-foot-long loft in Lower Manhattan, the Collection is now largely located at the Camille Billops and James V. Hatch archives at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Books Library at Emory University. In 1981, Billops and Hatch began publishing Artist and Influence: The Journal of Black American Cultural History, an annual journal featuring interviews with noted American “marginalized artists” across a wide range of genres. To date, more than 400 interviews have been recorded. Camille Billops died on June 1, 2019 at the age of 85 in New York, NY. (Text paraphrased from Wikipedia and Smithsonian).


Film Project: Artists Working in Los Angeles

Film Project: Artists Working in Los Angeles

I’m excited to be working on an exciting film project (not titled as of yet) that focuses on working artists in the city of Los Angeles. Many of you may have seen a few of the previews from my social media with the sitdowns with artist friends. I have been filming interviews over the last few years during studio visits, exhibitions, and more and have been organizing that footage into something complete that can really speak to the working artist. I am now up to forty (40) interviews for the project! I am looking for more and would love to include you if you’re working in Los Angeles and interested. Reach out to me and let’s schedule a time!

Abel Alejandre, 2022
Lavialle Campbell, 2022
Bart Cooper, 2022
Al-Baseer Holly, 2019
Adrienne Devine, 2019
Amy McCormac, 2022
April Bey, 2019
The Producer BDB, 2022
Daniela Garcia-Hamilton, 2022

What is a Portrait? Black American Portraits at LACMA

What is a Portrait? Black American Portraits at LACMA

I promise you the floor plan is nothing like the model” – Pusha T

What is a portrait? Is it just a snapshot of a face? A seizing of the moment of human expression? Or is it more? Many believe that portraits have a way of capturing a personality, a human essence if you will. Portraits are used to remember loved ones, honor distinguished citizens who gain honors through achievement and capture the emotions of a subject with an ability to extract feelings that arrest the viewer with their presence.

When I think of the term Black American Portraiture, I immediately see the images of Gordon Parks from LIFE Magazine, Howard Bingham’s iconic photos of a prime Muhammad Ali, or more recently, the portraits of artist Deana Lawson who unapologetically documents black life with an eye for consistency. More recently across the contemporary art world, black portraiture has become a hot item among top collectors and mainstream museums who jump at the chance to feature these works at luxury branded events and solo presentations worldwide under the guise of collection correction. This global focus on black portraiture and black figurative work sometimes feel like a collection of people all over again as the speed at which these works are bought and sold – sometimes returning very high profits for the seller – makes me feel a bit uneasy.

The exhibition Black American Portraits on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is a collection of contemporary portraiture through a variety of mediums demonstrating the essence of its African-American subjects. This presentation was the last hurrah of the Curator of Contemporary Art, Christine Kim, who recently departed the museum for London and a new position at the Tate Modern. This show is a tribute to the late David Driskell, a well-regarded artist, curator, and pioneer for the arts who was the ultimate champion for the awareness, exhibition, and collection of black artists by institutions. His seminal exhibition Two Centuries of Black American Art, which took place at LACMA in 1976, was the first comprehensive survey of African American art. The participating works in the show were selected from the LACMA collection, local and international gallerists, and collectors whose holdings make them very important people when talks of donations, loans, and family bequeathments come about.

I arrived at LACMA’s campus excited, negative COVID test in hand, marching toward the Broad Contemporary Art Museum only to be redirected to the Resnick Pavilion. BCAM is usually the venue for major exhibitions on LACMA’s campus (even more lately since the construction on the expansion began) and I would think that an exhibition of this magnitude and relevance would carry enough weight to be housed in the building. Especially accompanied by The Obama Portraits, which were on tour from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. and were on view to the public in an adjacent gallery, showcasing the ultimate visitor attraction.

I had the same feeling about Los Angeles icon Bette Saar’s exhibition titled Betye Saar: Call and Response which was staged in a small and seemingly insignificant gallery space in the same building in 2019. I wondered – with such a breadth of work and being a hometown hero – why Betye Saar would be relegated to such a modest presentation? I hoped as I entered the Resnick Pavilion, that the Black American Portraits exhibition wouldn’t revive those same sentiments. As I entered, I was immediately met by the BLKNWS programming, an installation by Los Angeles-based artist and filmmaker Kahlil Joseph. The work is video-based content of current and historic events involving the African American community distributed across two screens that display or support the imagery on view. The content is regularly updated by the BLKNWS team and is truly a bright light in the public coverage of black people across the world. This work was unveiled with the Hammer Museums’ Made in L.A. 2020: A Version, but my first encounter with it was at Hank’s Mini Mart in Southwest Los Angeles and I fell in love with it instantly.

Black American Portraits features over 140 works in different mediums with hopes of examining African-Americans as subjects over the last two centuries. As I stepped into the gallery, I stood, I thought, out of the walkway to get an overall sense of how the exhibition should be approached and if there were any additional guides to help visitors navigate the multitude of works on view. I was eventually tapped by the museum security to move to the side because I was blocking the entry just a tad. (laughs)

I eventually found myself in front of the wall that displayed the crimson red exhibition title and statement, hoping to browse the selection with a sense of direction from the curatorial staff. There were a variety of starting points where one could begin their viewing experience. I wonder if that was the intent of the curator? Keeping the flow open and allowing the viewer to navigate the story in their way. Almost like the mind-bending albums of Grammy-winning music artist and Los Angeles native Kendrick Lamar, the starting point is wherever you decide to begin.

The paintings in the show are arranged in a salon-style with no upfront correlation or timeline. The portraits, seemingly grouped, feature images of blue-collared African-Americans in the workforce alongside sleek and sharp presentations of dignitaries and celebrities filled with color. I began with the portrait closest to the vinyl description which happened to be “Portrait of a Sailor”, a small (compared to other works on the wall) oil work showing a distinguished black man in a striking blue sailor’s coat and a bright red scarf resting comfortably around his neck. He is standing proudly in position against a backdrop of a sailing ship. The sailor looks with confidence as the clouds that shape the background give way to the impending storm, masking the beautiful sunset. The work was painted circa 1800 with a question mark as to whom the subject in the portrait is referencing. Researchers have the name “Paul Cuffe”, a businessman and sailor, as the subject in the painting. Even still with some doubt, as the original artist is not identified and probably no longer alive to even confirm it. The painting has an interesting history as its authorship has been in question for decades with Christie’s London first attributing it to artist John Singleton Copley in 1952.

In the first grouping of works, I was drawn to a painting by local art legend Dr. Samella Lewis with her portrait of Warren Kenner. Created in 1948, this oil work shows Kenner in thought, possibly sitting for the artist. Wrapped in a wood-like frame and highlighted with gold that seemed to illuminate the subject, it gave a sense of importance, maybe a familial or platonic relationship with the artist. Portrait of a Negro (Claude McKay), 1944 by Beauford Delaney, and The Conductor, 1941 by Charles Alston are very similar in presentation, showing black men posing for photos in what appears to be their work uniforms. I love the relationship of the works as they speak to African-Americans making their way into corporate America while still maintaining the challenging labor positions that help to sustain the country. 

Leading the next group of works with a bounty of color are Portrait of a Cultured Lady, 1948 by Archibald Motley, Jr, and the portrait of the legendary singer Marian Anderson in 1944 by Laura Wheeler Waring. Both subjects are donning glamorous threads for their respective professions with a solid bold color (Waring’s Marian in Red and Motley Jr’s Cultured Lady in a deep purple) indicating strength, however, the works appear very soft and share the presence of parts of another painting (I wonder which artists?) alluding to their attention and participation in culture.

Following this group was a very profound juxtaposition of paintings and drawings and possibly the best combination of portrait placement in the entire exhibition. Sharecropper, 1943 by John Biggers, and Sharecropper, 1952 by Elizabeth Catlett sit atop this grouping and offer different gazes (male and female) of their subjects reflecting the veracity of black workers throughout history.

Thurgood Marshall, 1956 by Betsy Graves Reyneau along with Frederick Douglass, 1950, and Portrait of Tom Bradley, 1974 (The City of Los Angeles’ Mayor from 1973-1993) by the legendary Charles White rounded out this group of paintings. These works demonstrate the hierarchy and timeline of the growth of a people, paying tribute to the multitude of the African-American experience in the United States. From sharecropping to occupying seats on the Supreme Court, the work expresses the assimilation of African-Americans politically and economically, and the individuals whose efforts helped pave the way to equal inclusion in American society.

I do believe that the proper spacing and additional information would have enhanced the importance of each of these works. Seeing them individually with a concentrated focus would allow the context to be fully respected in conjunction with the artistic talent displayed. Although, viewing them together spoke to a narrative that sometimes goes underappreciated.

As I made my way toward the end of the first wall of the collection, I paused to enjoy works by Alice Neel (Horace Cayton, 1949) and Eldzier Corter (The Couple, 1949). Neel’s work presents Mr. Cayton, an activist, and journalist, seated in dark oiled tones of blue, black, and gray contrasted by a colorful green, orange and yellow tie. Demonstrating a no-nonsense approach, Neel captures Cayton as an attentive but gentle man, legs-crossed and ready to tackle stories head-on.

I started to feel that as I got closer to the end of the first wall there was a constant fight for my attention. I focused on Benny Andrews’ For Colored Girls, 1977, as I am a huge fan of his multi-fabric-infused canvas works. They excite my idea of subjects reaching out and touching the viewer, even if it’s only just an illusion. In For Colored Girls, he continues that practice as his subject – an older woman – sits in a fabric-covered chair with a tweed hat, next to a group of flowers that match the orangish-red strokes in her dress. Her blouse, seemingly made of canvas, hangs off the shoulders as it would if the woman were right in front of you, adding more concentration to the importance of threads in the subject’s life. 

Resting above Andrews’s work was Betye Saar’s Phrenology Man with Symbols, 1966, and Jacob Lawrence’s The Studio, 1996, which reminds me heavily of Derrick Adams’ work with its diametrical shapes that form human compositions.

David Driskell’s Jazz Singer, (Lady of Leisure, Fox), 1974 seemed to be somehow hidden amongst the other paintings even though its size would have you think otherwise. I’ve recently started to appreciate the work of David Driskell after researching more on his contribution to the history of black collage and the role it plays in storytelling. He was incredibly instrumental in shaping the narrative around black visual identity in fine art. I’m excited to explore his career and work further in forthcoming writings.

As soon as you turn away from the David Driskell work you are smacked in the face with the coolest work in the whole show. Photo Bloke, 2016 by Barkley Hendricks is a beautifully bright, salmon-shaded work featuring a black male – dressed in a similar salmon suit – properly highlighted through Hendricks’s knowledge of the hue spectrum. This painting shows the enjoyment in the life of “Getting Fresh” and feeling good. Growing up in Philadelphia, I’ve always admired the cool of Hendricks’s images as youth continuing into adulthood. I am truly taken aback by the nostalgia and the accuracy in the translation of each of his works. 

The Hendricks piece shares a wall with three massive works by current contemporary art powerhouses. I guess the curatorial team wanted to make a statement within the artist hierarchy as these three artists, Amy Sherald, Kehinde Wiley, and Mickalene Thomas have towering works that unabashedly declare them as the stars of the presentation. It almost makes Barkley Hendricks’s work feel like President Abraham Lincoln on Mt. Rushmore, present but almost insignificant. Sure, you’re there, but are you really?

Amy Sherald’s An Ocean Away, 2020 is the first piece you meet of the “Big 3” and for me, it was a very familiar one. I had recently seen this work in Amy Sherald’s solo show Amy Sherald: The Great American Fact at Hauser and Wirth Los Angeles less than a year ago. It had already reached the floors of a prominent institution. Resembling a couple’s summer trip, Sherald reintroduces the viewer to her palette using levels of gray as skin tone for her subjects. It delivers a stark distinction against the bold hues of the surf gear, surfboards, and saturation of earth colors of sand and sky in the background. 

In the center, we have Portrait of Mickalene Thomas, The Coyote, 2017 by Kehinde Wiley. A portrait of the artist Mickalene Thomas as a keeper of wolves in the night. I think Kehinde wanted to show the fierceness of her character as the painting has a very potent presence unlike the visible softness of the Sherald work. The portrait of Mickalene Thomas’s wife, Racquel Chevremont in The Inversion of Racquel, 2021, reminds me of a shiny UNO Card or an old flier I pulled out of my grandmother’s drawer. It’s made of oil and acrylic paints with rhinestones that shimmer against the wood panel. Its composition is undoubtedly familiar with Thomas’s oeuvre as it recreates a very reflective feel of black women in commercial advertisements in the 1970s.

Across from the introductory wall includes a myriad of stories through the works. Reframing the past and reclaiming historical narratives, these works focus on figures of advancement and awareness even amongst turbulence. Genevieve Gaignard’s Trailblazer (A Dream Deferred), 2015, shows variety in the “the look” of blackness in the art world. In the work, in which she is the subject, she stands proudly under a tree holding a framed painting of Rev Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and former President John F. Kennedy, both of whom were assassinated at the heights of their activist and political careers. Renee Cox’s The Signing, 2017 introduces a constituency of Afro-futuristic renaissance posed portraits merged into a single frame reimagining black people as the purveyors of a new reality. Could this be a rethinking of the signing of the Declaration of Independence? But this time, signed by black people? 

Atop these works is a piece by Titus Kaphar titled Enough About You, 2016, focusing on a young black youth first hidden in the original version a painting flanked by a majority of white men. In Kaphar’s version, the youth is emphasized by a gold frame accentuating his now importance and silencing, if only for a moment, the chatter about the “greatness” of the white men that surrounded him. The canvas seems to be hardened by a chemical that allows the crumbled form to take its shape and permanently places the black subject in the center of the conversation. Mixed in between are works by Lezley Saar (daughter of the aforementioned Betye Saar) Of a bed of night iris shredding pedals one by one, like the hours of darkness, 2020, Umar Rashid (Yolanda, Lady of Yerba Buena, 2015) and Whitfield Lovell (#3, (After the Card Series), 2009).

Issac Julien’s Serenade (Lessons of the Hour), 2019 plays well with Renee Cox’s The Signing, 2017 as it could appear to be (even though it isn’t) a focused shot of some of the members in preparation for that photo. The still is from Julien’s beautifully directed film with the same title and prominently ponders on the life of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

We come across Kaphar again with Behind the Myth of Benevolence, 2014 which features the image of a young woman, probably Sally Hemmings, the slave and bearer of a child (or children) of Thomas Jefferson. Appearing behind the hanging canvas as the portrait of Jefferson is slowly stripped away, she reveals herself likely nude, hinting at the covered crimes of slave masters. I appreciate the explanation by Kaphar in an earlier interview I read on the digital art website CultureType, in which Kaphar explains the work. He clarifies that it isn’t solely about Hemmings but “a symbol of many of the black women whose stories have been shrouded by the narratives of our deified founding fathers.” This work excites me every time I come across it as I believe it is a brilliant representation of a mix between sculpture, painting, and education.

I loved that Behind the Myth of Benevolence, 2014 is positioned next to Biddy Mason, 2006 by Elizabeth Colomba. The portrait appears sepia with its color scheme but is strong in its message as it presents Biddy as a regal figure, dressed in a black suit or robe. The light shines through her window as an indicator of her importance to a bright future for her people. Mason was a California entrepreneur and philanthropist whose leadership and deeds went highly underappreciated throughout history because of her sex and skin color. These works, like the earlier presentations of the Delaney and Alston paintings, show the growth of the black worker from sharecropper and slave to a noble leader.

In the center of the room sat the more three-dimensional portrait works. Sargent Claude Johnson’s Chester, 1930, is a bronze sculpture with the facial bust of a man with a hand, presumably his own, resting on the right side of his face. The look feels of submission or approval, maybe at a loved one. Allison Saar’s Sledge Hammer Mamma, 1996, is almost three feet in size and takes human form with its fists balled as if it’s ready to take on all comers. The supposed feet of the sculpture have the shape of a sledgehammer which I took to indicate that the power is in the movement, placing one foot in front of the other. The sculpture has visible nails that have been hammered into its frame for stability but also maybe to demonstrate that it’s taken its lumps. Probably explains why it’s ready to fight. Richmond Barthe’s Inner Music, 1956 is a bronze sculpture highlighting the profile of a nude black man, possibly a dancer because of the way he is posed. I wonder if this is the artist’s interpretation of a mixture of elements with Michaelangelo’s David and the Venus de Milo by Alexandros of Antioch? Barthe’s work is undoubtedly something else on my list I’d love to look more into.

Tavares Strachan’s Enoch, 2015-17 is a very interesting project from the LACMA Art + Technology Lab grant recipient as ENOCH brings awareness to the story of Robert Henry Lawrence Jr, the first African-American astronaut selected for the space program. The work takes the royal stance of a sarcophagus but physically takes the shape of a vase or urn. The project was realized through the launching of a 3U satellite with the help of sponsor SpaceX. Augusta Savage’s Gwendolyn Knight, 1934 is a casted homage to her mentee molded in clay and cast in plaster. Knight’s likeness is very firm and feminine showing the maidenly softness of the artist but also the materials of the work speak to her ability to stand firm in her beliefs. I read that not many of Savage’s works are in existence because of minimal funding for bronze casting. Artists are constantly prohibited because of financial burdens. Some things never change throughout time.

Standing away from the sculpture crowd and greeting guests who took the scenic route through the exhibition, was Karon Davis’s Ishmael, 2017. From the collection of UTA Artist Space director Arthur Lewis, Ismael, 2017 is a plaster-based representation of a young boy in a confident stance. It reminds me of the “Fearless Girl” bronze statue by Kristen Visbal on Wall Street in New York City. I love Davis’ plastered sculptures as they feel as if someone is still molding on the inside and their remarkably replicated features, especially the eyes in this work, make me question if Ishmael isn’t still in there.

As you spin around the wall, you find yourself entering the section mostly devoted to photography (there were also a few photos outside of it like but this was majority photo-based). You are welcomed by vivid images that display the gaze of the black photographer. Upon entering the space I was met by a vertical trio of photographs led by Ralph Nelson’s black and white portrait of former President Barack Obama in Untitled (Obama in Mirror, B&W), 2009. I was immediately intrigued by this photo as I see two sides (figuratively and literally) of the former President. The silhouette posterior of the President appears strong, solid, and unwavering while in the anterior shot he appears calm, eyes closed in submission, a subtle entry into the personality of Barack Obama. 

Below the Nelson portrait sat a bursting ray and stripes signifying the noise from the horn of Charlie “Bird” Parker in Rico Gaston’s, Bird, 2015. This portrait of “Bird” is miniature in comparison to the bands that overwhelm the composition, almost questioning if the work is about the rays or the legendary musician. At the bottom of the trio sat the work of Deborah Willis and her son, artist Hank Willis Thomas (whose collaborative work Sometimes I See Myself in You, 2008 is also featured in the gallery) depicting almost mirror images of a singular male subject, one being Thomas himself, is reminiscent of a previous familial moment. I’d like to think that the male in the first image is Thomas’ father and the second image is a “Like Father, Like Son” moment where the mother as photographer adores the likeness of her kin. 

One of the most prominent pieces on the wall almost directly on the other side of his previous work is Isaac Julien’s The Last Angel of History, 1989/2016 from his Looking for Langston Vintage series. It focuses on a young man dressed in a wing-fitted costume holding a photo of Langston Hughes on a scroll. The photo is very dramatic as if the angel is using the image to represent something he is either answering or demonstrating. Maybe the angel was before God and pleading for the entry of the late poet into heaven?

My absolute favorite photos were of Laura Aguilar, Clothed/Unclothed #34, 1994, and Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled, 1990, from Weems’ kitchen table series. These works spoke about the embracing characteristics of love and family. Showing different scenes of affection – the husband and wife’s interaction in Weems’s work and the father embracing the children in Aguilar’s work – demonstrates different types of love generating the same feeling of comfort and security. Weems’ work also contains a text panel that waxes eloquently about love in the late summer and sets the tone for understanding the history of the love story on view.

I also got a glimpse of works from legends Lorna Simpson (Backdrops Circa 1940s, 1998) and Arthur Jafa (Monster, 1998, Printed in 2017) which shows a young Jafa posing with a menacing look at the camera. In the photo, I can’t tell if that is his hair or the shadows amongst the ceiling but it adds more of a deranged look which may be led to the title.

Deborah Willis’s Living Room Picture Stories, 1994, has photos of what looks like family members in the fabric of the work. This quilted creation reminds me of the term “fabric of our lives” often mentioned in commercials and promotional material about moments. It brings to mind the episode of the TV show Family Matters where the younger granddaughter Laura mistakenly sold the family quilt at an art exhibition. It brought awareness to me of the importance of quilting and what it means to the black community and the history of passing down memories and familial information through knitting. Bisa Butler’s Forever, 2020, a vibrant textile-based representation of the late actor Chadwick Boseman, is one of the best. She gracefully translates the images of her subjects into soft, comforting cloth illustrations. I was fascinated by her exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago which showed the diversity in imagery and consistency of the material in an array of her pieces. Kerry James Marshall’s Black Beauty (Tyla), 2012, is an extremely muted portrait of a black woman softly lit with a bluish hue illuminating the features of her skin, the shine in her earrings, and parts of her shirt. I liken this photo to his paintings which exhibit the dark hues of his figures giving a lesson on the many shades of black.

The gallery also features a collection of gelatin silver prints by James Van der Zee (one of the first black photographers I’ve had the chance to learn about as a youth) including Self-Portrait in Boater Hat, c. 1925, which features the artist donning a derby-style boater hat and a striking black suit. Other works of Van der Zee on view include Marcus Garvey & Garvey Militia, Harlem, 1924, Crowd in Harlem, 1929, Atlantic City, 1930, and Daddy Grace, Harlem, 1938, which shows a man dedicated to a spiritual message with his hands up in submission inside of a place of worship. 

Kwame Braithewaite’s Untitled (Clara Lewis Buggs with Yellow Flower), 1962, printed 2020, and Untitled (Carolee Prince Wearing Her Own Designs), 1964, printed 2018 are by far the calmest works in the gallery. The way Braithwaite uses bold color as a way to accentuate his subjects is masterful. Both photos feature eccentric hairstyles and objects of scene definition in addition to the models which help to complete the photo. The objects also do an amazing job of contrasting color as it presents a beautiful offset that intensely drew my focus.

The space also contained editions from Lorraine O’Grady’s famous “Art is…” photography series featuring images (Art Is… (Man with Rings and Child), Art Is… (Nubians), Art Is… (Man with Baby), Art Is… (Unisex Barber Shop), all 1983, printed 2009) from the Harlem African-American parade in 1983. O’Grady’s mission was concentrated on capturing the neighborhood people inside of a golden frame. One of the largest and best iterations of participation art I’ve ever seen. I love seeing the multitude of photos with different scenes each time this work is on view. I find something soothing about them.

Following the O’Grady works are a collection of works whose relationships are stunning. Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas’s forenamed Sometimes I See Myself in You, 2008 reminds me of the classic Source Magazine cover that featured the Death Row records team of Suge Knight, Dr. Dre, and others dressed in all black to make their bodies seem invisible over the emptiness of the black background. Willis and Willis Thomas recreate that moment with a twist. The image presents three portraits. On the left you find Thomas and on the right you find Willis. The portrait in the middle is a mash-up of both of their photos showing the similarities in the gene pool of the family. It’s striking as the features are almost exact but for a few exceptions. D’Angelo Lovell WilliamsDaddy Issues, 2019 shows an arm-wrestling match between two black males, possibly father and son, exercising the age-old duel of old versus new. It’s very interesting because the arm wrestle first starts as a handshake (just as the men are positioned in the photo) but can easily turn into a tussle. Not always physical, but mostly egotistical.  

Tourmaline offers an arresting conversation with Swallowtail, 2020, as she engages the audience through the lens of Black-Trans liberation using her self-portrait to elevate ownership of identity. I read an interview with ArtForum where she speaks about “not leaving one’s self out” and reevaluating the practice to also include her journey in the narrative. Todd Gray’s Mirror Mirror, 2014, displays an image of a young black child obscured by a circular photo frame containing a red, orange, and black flower. The child can be seen holding an image that is also hidden by the photo frame. The crack of the wall structure, or possibly an overhead shot of a cracked surface on the ground, add striking earth-toned cool to the image allowing the flowers’ colors to take center stage in the artwork. 

A vitrine in the center of the space contained late 19th-century Albumen silver print photographs of unidentified black people sitting for the camera. Some are very small and in beautiful personalized frames, while others are preserved very well and show the postures of families, children, and businessmen of the era. One of the prints, the larger of them, is of the world-recognized abolitionist Frederick Douglass by George Kendall Warren in 1876 – on loan from the National Portrait Gallery.

Before you exit the room, you’re introduced to Barrington and Father, 2021, by the aforementioned Deana Lawson, which shows a father and son – dressed in the styles of their respective generational trends – showing how fashion has changed over the years. Even though trends change, both men remain consistent with the fashions that embody who they are. We all know a few elders in the black community that just won’t let the gators and purple suits go. (laughs) I’m a huge fan of Lawson’s photography as her study in hard-hitting naturalism of contemporary black life always seems to stop me in my tracks with its intimacy.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s Darkroom Mirror Study (Ox5A1525), 2017 I believe should’ve been the opening image to the works in this part of the exhibit. This image focuses solely on the camera – the instrument that initiates and records moments of our lifetime – as it sits on a tripod in the portrait position with the artist’s hand as a stabilizing and guiding assistant. This image is relatable to every photo in the room as each artist has undergone the song and dance of photography during their practice and production of their respective works.

Xaviera Simmons’ Sundown (Number twenty), 2018, is more of a photo of a moment. It shows a side profile of the artist holding an ancestral mask in one hand and a printed photo of a black man being pulled from a train by white attackers in the other. The portrait, in this case, is the mask, and the photo is a representation of the constant portrait of racism that continues to plague the world. 

The Martine Sims video work Still from Notes on Gesture, 2015 drove me insane (laughs). I am a fan of Sims’s video performance creations but this piece and its audible reach throughout the gallery gave me PTSD and I’m sure parents of small kids were triggered as well. I understand the meaning of gesture recognition, it is truly important to comprehend culture, especially in the black community,  but there has to be some consolation for those who grew up with these (laughs). I felt as if I was back at my family’s home surrounded by little cousins and nieces and having to listen to them constantly bicker and repeat the “word of the day” from social media. I tried to tune it out on every visit home, and inside this exhibition, but unfortunately, it never works. The video’s constant repetition also drew ire from the visitors as well as many who heard the work before they saw it, making their engagement with it very minimal. One lady was completely miffed by it, asking if it could be turned off. (laughs)

Kenturah Davis’ A Question Only Answered With Another Question, 2019, is an oil portrait with a painted figure that appears shadowy and creates an aura around itself through swift movement.  The artist creates this effect through transparent touches of the oil and rubber stamping. The process is a fascinating one as Davis sometimes includes messages in the work that once repeated on her preferred canvas reveal figures – many times of the artist herself or friends. Jordan Casteels Jordan 2020, is a self-portrait in a pinkish hue of the artist sitting calmly in sweatpants on her couch. The main component of the painting (besides the subject) is the pillow that she’s leaning up against as this provides a step away from the dominating hue to provide a vivid burst of coloring centering the work. You also can’t help but notice her collection of books that are on the shelves and the plants that are resting in the background representative of growth and knowledge.

Rafa Esparza’s Big Chillin with Patrisse, 2021, I initially thought was a portrait of MCA Chicago curator Jamillah James, a leading art professional and former curator at ICA LA where Esparza had his solo show “Rafa Esparza: De la Calle”. The show included works in the adobe practice of the artist which I truly enjoyed. This portrait made of acrylic and adobe depicts a black woman lying comfortably on what seems to be a balcony, restfully looking at the viewer, welcoming a heartfelt conversation. Clifford Prince King’s Safe Space, 2020 is an intimate portrait photograph of three black queer men relaxing, grooming, and enjoying each other’s company. It centralizes on one main figure who is receiving a drag of smoke from one of the men holding a joint while braiding the third man’s hair as that man reads a book. The men are seen sitting, lying, and resting against a mattress on the floor of an apartment space, exhibiting the care and candor of black queer relationships.

Kim Dacres’ No my first name ain’t baby, 2020, stems from the harassment of women being catcalled. Made of rubber tires from cars and bicycles, Dacres recreates the bust of a woman with beautiful translations of the hair and accessories. Dacres’ practice is reminiscent of the work of artist Chakaia Booker which combines similar materials in production creating large public art. Dacres’ approach is very subtle in comparison to Booker but doesn’t lack force as the work shows she’s nothing to play with, and her first name surely isn’t “Baby”. 

Woody De’Othello’s Blank Faced, 2020, reminds me of a teapot or a funnel that contains the filtered water that gets delivered to homes and offices (laughs). It appears to have a set of ears adding personality to the object. The pot rests or is affixed atop a shiny blue ceramic stool as an honor for its years of use.  The ceramics shine with a glaze that reflects smoothly off of the gallery’s lights showing all of the grooves and digs in the finished product. Simone Yvette Leigh’s Stretch Series #1, 2019, shows the glazed stone signature eyeless sculpture with a raised neck reminiscent of African tribe women. I love how sleek her sculptures are and the exclusion of the eyes in her work to me represents a template for the voice of all black women. Her work is very sturdy and present, a testament to the will of the black woman.

I remember the series of works that Glenn Kaino’s, The Invisible Man (Salute), 2018, stems from. A version of this sculpture (or sculpture like this) made its debut during Art Basel Miami Beach in 2016 at Collins Park in Miami, FL. The public version of this sculpture features the figure with both its hands raised, referring to the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” cries that went viral after the murder of Michael Brown in 2014 by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson. The work is a double-sided mirrored silhouette of a figure, with its right hand raised in the black power salute. A portrait that has been heavily reiterated during the social unrests of the country in the last few years. 

The final walkway of the exhibition felt very cramped. This is where the salon-style curation went into overdrive and you could feel overwhelmed by the amount of work on the wall. Taking a step back, it felt as if there was an overflow of potential choices for inclusion and instead of going through the process of elimination, the curatorial staff let the ocean just flow. Like the famous meme of Oprah, “You get a space, you get a space, everyone gets spaces!” (laughs).

Kohshin Finley’s Essence and Jihaari, 2020, is a grayish oil portrait of  California African American Museum Visual Arts Curator Essence Harden and her husband Jihaari, embracing in front of what looks like their family home. The painting is very nostalgic as the oil adds a smoothness to the portrait that reveals the couple’s expressions, clothing, and atmosphere. I love Finley’s realism in portraiture as he seems to capture the true expression of his subjects with a personal connection between the soul and his brush. 

Glenn Kaino’s (Salute (Second Salute), 2019) is a framed golden bust of a gloved fist with the black power salute depicting Olympic medalist Tommie Smith’s iconic moment at the 1968 summer games. The work has an infinite reflection speaking to the multitude of participants in the continuous fight for justice.

Shepard Fairey’s John Lewis: Good Trouble, 2020, was created in the traditional screen print style made famous by the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. Fairey paints a portrait of a youthful John Lewis, the Georgia politician, and activist, who was on the front lines of many of the protests and uprisings of the civil rights movement. Lewis also served in the House of Representatives in the State of Georgia before his passing in 2020. The work is very consistent in branding with many of Fairey’s screen printing projects as he combines red, gold, and a light teal color that can be seen interspersed throughout the work. It also features a quote by Lewis alongside newspaper articles about the “Melee at Selma” in which he and a host of protestors were attacked by local police. Another headline reports on African-American citizens risking their lives for the right to vote in 1964. What a wild time in history that seems to be having a reboot.

Immediately under the Fairey piece, was a work by artist and Black Panther Party member, Emory Douglas with The Black Panther, vol. 2, no. 25, March 9, 1969. The artwork is an ink-on-paper illustration of a young boy selling the Black Panther’s newspaper with a rifle strapped around his back. The newspaper has a front-page headline reading “All Power To The People” prominently in his raised hand. The bright orange of the page invites the urgency of the task at hand and grabs the attention of the viewer instantly. 

Calida Rawles’ In His Image, 2021 is a hyperrealistic painting of a black male resting comfortably in a pool of water with his body semi-submerged and his face pointed at the sun. The bluish-green hue of the water dominates the painting, almost dipping you in the water with the male. The skin seems eerily real, almost as if you can touch it. The artist illuminates the essence of the subject making it appear photographic and not touched by a human hand. I am truly enamored with the way that Rawles paints water. It’s as if you can sink your hand directly into her work. I remember being blown away by her water-based works in her solo show at the Various Small Fires gallery space in Los Angeles in early 2020. This is most certainly one of the most sophisticatedly painted pieces in the exhibit.

Fulton Leroy Washington’s Shattered Dreams, 2020 portrays the late Kobe Bryant gazing sorrowfully at the viewer. Wearing a navy blue hoodie with Lakers purple highlights that gleam against the black background, tears made of basketballs can be seen pouring from the eye of the hoops legend ultimately forming a scene of Bryant shooting a jump shot. Washington places cracks in the frame of the late superstar that contain symbols of the city of Los Angeles and the fatal crash site – you can see the smoke rising behind his head – with an indication that Kobe’s death rattled the world like an earthquake. The artist reveals an opening in the skull of Kobe Bryant showing a family portrait exemplifying what was always on his mind. Family. Rest in Peace, Kobe.

When I laid eyes on Numbers and Faces: Multi-Racial Ethnic Combinations Series 1: Face #7. Eduardo Soriano-Hewitt (Black/Filipino), 2020 by Charles Gaines, my first thought was “Is that Tupac?”. There seems to be a merging of many faces of numerous races and at the end of it, it somehow looks like the late Los Angeles-based rapper and activist Tupac Shakur (laughs). Gaines carefully numbers and paints the trajectory of his work on acrylic sheets bringing to mind the paint by numbers style that is usually found at paint and sip parties. The acrylic sheet that the work is painted on summons thoughts of the light bright game from the 1980s where you would place colorful pegs on the light board and create your method from a set of prearranged plans or a custom design. Gaines has perfected this technique and puts it on display in this piece focused on facial combinations and forms to create a singular result. You can see a consistency in the eyes, nose, and mouth of each face but you witness the differences in the subjects when you look toward the top of the head and notice that the hair changes with its color assignment. 

Jake, Our Best., 1978-83 by Sam Doyle, is a painting of a man named “Jake” (of course) painted on metal in regular house paint. Doyle’s work recorded the life and times of the Gullah people of Saint Helena Island in South Carolina. “Jake” is posed in the manner of a fighter/boxer, in a fighting stance, but he is holding what looks like a baseball in his right hand. Could Jake be a pitcher? He is dressed in a blue jersey with the initials T.G (or T.B.), brown trousers, a backward hat, and high socks which could convey that he is playing in a cricket or baseball game. The text “Jake, Our Best.” sits atop the subject in white and the work starts to look like a baseball card. Maybe Doyle was looking to create his version of the iconic Honus Wagner baseball card.

Henry Taylor’s She Is Not A Ho, 2005 is a depiction of a young black woman sporting a white blouse with a hand – of what appears to be a man – gripped around her waist. The scene also includes a figure extending an extra-long arm to pour liquor out onto the road (a ritual in the black community for paying respect to a lost loved one). The most interesting part of the painting is the hidden white face at the top right, which was almost impossible to see in the gallery with the work installed way above a visitor’s eye height. The work also draws reference to Rene Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, 1929 – which is also in the LACMA collection – as Taylor adds the signature pipe and quote “Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This Is Not A Pipe)” to the piece as a form of “meta messaging”, hinting at the unfavorable perceptions of the woman. She is NOT a ho, no matter what you think of her bringing clear that the images we see of people don’t always reflect who they are. 

Jonathan Lyndon Chase’s butt naked dressed in pearls, 2018 is a mixed media painting that confused the hell out of me. For real. (laughs). It shows a sketched assortment of naked bodies (perhaps men) that are trying on pearls and makeup in a scene of probable grooming. This conclusion was reached by observing pearls and the set of hair clippers that are seen in the bottom right of the scene. The figures are made up of gold and tannish paint and outlined in black, the only actual way you’d be able to recognize a figure in the work – besides a few nipples, the lipstick, and painted circles that cover the anuses of these figures that the artist emphasized throughout the scene. The heavy layering of the gold paint at the top unites with some of the formations, while they sit on what’s presumed to be a purple carpet or mattress. The purple also makes an appearance at the top, blending into the faces of two of the formations. The gold could also be seen in the hair of the figures highlighting their wave-inspired hairstyles. There are two watches in the artwork – not attached to any of the subjects – and five painted lemons (with the outline of a sixth) that threw me for a loop. The artwork could be seen resting against the wall while sitting on three styrofoam doll heads which in my opinion put the already undesirable salon-style curation of the show on an even thinner ice with the presentation. 

Sadie Barnette’s (Untitled (Dad, 1966 and 1968), 2016) are portraits of the artist’s father showing his duality as a United States serviceman and a member of the Black Panther Party. Her work caught my attention a couple of years ago when she included her father’s FBI file in an installation that talked about government surveillance. I think she is doing an important duty by reframing the narrative around her father and other black men like him that have had their reputations ruined by unfortunate circumstances placed on them by governments.

Deborah Roberts’, Breaking Ranks, 2018, is a paper collage portrait mash-up of faces forming a young girl wearing a tiara. The child has two sets of arms and hands, one set being the hands of Rosa Parks from a mugshot photo, reiterating the collective trauma passed through history. What draws your eye, other than the number 7053 from the mugshot addition, is the contrasting patterns of the clothing that she’s wearing. Red and white stripes lay calmly under an orange and tan blouse along with a square patterned skirt that exudes the multiple personalities of the collaged subject. 

Instantly under Roberts’s work is Chelle Barbour’s Portrait of Madame C.J. Walker, 2018-19, a mixed media collage with the most identifying characteristic being a new set of eyes over the face of Madame Walker. The creation also contains a set of hands holding the hot comb, a symbol for Walker’s industry that she founded. Barbour also adds a cluster of lids from hair product cans that almost look like pennies until you examine them tighter. Her status is also accentuated by the purple bouquet in her hair and feather-based attire. The pennies seem to work as well and maybe even better because Madame Walker was bringing in the coin.

Barbour and Roberts contribute two different approaches to collage work as both have roots based on futurism and realism. Roberts draws on historical conversations that engage the viewer to remember and research. In Barbour’s practice, her futuristic medley of images invites the viewer to reimagine and dream the impossible. 

I thought that Kehinde Wiley’s Yachinboaz Ben Yisrael II, 2021 could’ve been the perfect complement to Bisa Butler’s piece if curated in proximity. It would have been an intriguing conversation with each other. Wiley’s signature floral oil-based painting presents a young black man fitted with a cane in a pose of a knight or noble. As in many of Wiley’s works, that floral arrangement conquers the painting and gives the sense that the figure is emerging from the flora. The man is dressed in a very modern style which Wiley uses to relate the current feelings of joy and promise that are in black men. I love the sentiment behind his work as it shines a light of positivity and a feeling of growth and future, especially in times where the visuals you see about us are often non-progressive. The exuberance of color and the celebration of their subjects almost mirror one another and are especially reflective as many young men (like those in Wiley’s paintings) strive to achieve their dreams at great heights as Boseman had before his untimely passing.

Dr. Samella Lewis’s Bag Man, 1996 has probably the best backstory story of all the works in the show. This painting was the second version of the work which Lewis made out of frustration after her request to borrow the original for a show was declined by the collector. Now that’s boss. I wonder how many times that’s been done in today’s art world? This wood-framed oil work shows the image of a worker dressed in overalls with a brown and red mix. His eyes look behind him as he hauls a yellow sack on his back. The painting is set against a solid blue with slight hints of green filled with thick brushstrokes almost jumping out at the observer. Before reading about the work, I wondered if the man had left home or work, or maybe he was just down on his luck with nowhere to go. Upon further investigation, I learned that Lewis was inspired by her memories of trash pick-up men and the social injustices of folks who struggle in the streets. Living in Los Angeles, this work touches on the heart of a growing issue in the city. I love it more each time I see it.  

Tatiana Fazlalizadeh’s Nayyirah and Rachel, 2010 is an oil-painted portrayal of queer love (that I felt would’ve gone perfectly with a few of the other works in the show – like the Clifford Prince King work) that features two black women in an intimate show of affection. The woman in the foreground is bare and covers the woman behind her who is also presumably nude, at least in some way, as you can see the blues of what appears to be a dress in the bottom left corner. The woman in the background wears a rose in her hair and kisses the shoulder of the woman in the front while she looks directly at the viewer. I love how the artist uses a presence of light (maybe recited from a reference photograph?) as she extracts the contrast of the different shades of brown in their skin. The rose in the hair of the woman in the background adds softness against the power of the dominant colors of the white background and the brown tones of their skin. I feel the nudeness is them baring their truth to the world and solidifying it with a kiss that symbolizes the love and trust that she has for her “protector”. Fazlalizadeh is known for her larger-scale paste-up work of charcoal-based drawings that are then printed on an extensive scale and pasted around streets and businesses across the country. 

Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe is among several Ghanaian-based painters being recognized for their practice in portraiture in today’s contemporary art market. The painting, Lady on Blue Couch, 2019, is overpowered by the assertive orange of the dress, the cool blue of the couch, and the lime green that rests on the wall behind the figure. The subject has a gray skin tone that matches the somber look on her face. She is accented by a set of pearls on her neck and wrist and one earring that is visible within the hairstyle.

Lauren Halsey’s The Crenshaw Hieroglyphic Project: Exterior Wall (featuring Frankie Beverly), 2018 is an exterior wall panel of the proposed structure for the Crenshaw Hieroglyphics Project set to be installed soon by Halsey in Los Angeles. Images carved into gypsum panels depict a group of four women and a man, highlighting their hairstyles – looking like the style choices when you go to a barbershop or hair salon. The word “MAZE” is prominently carved into the t-shirt of another subject that’s missing a head (maybe to be revealed on another panel). Scratched into the panel was the text  “Featuring Frankie Beverly”, referring to the legendary band. Halsey’s work has been referred to as “Sculptural Painting” and I have to agree wholly. I first experienced her prototype of the project through her participation in Made in L.A. 2018 at the Hammer Museum, where a blueprint design and installation were revealed. Halsey incorporates South Los Angeles in everything she creates. Her portrait of the familiar scene reflects her love and respect for the traditions of her community.

Ndjeka Akunyili Crosby’s I Still Face You, 2015 portrays a meeting in what looks to be the sitting room at a home. The piece is created with oil and acrylic paints, charcoal, and photo transfers that line the walls in the room, the chairs, and the parts of the floor. All of the participants are dressed in traditional African clothing with the artist and a lighter-skinned subject, possibly her husband, sharing a moment while the others look on. It makes me think of possibly the moment when Crosby brought her significant other to meet her parents. Maybe he had to face serious questions about his intentions with Njideka before they moved forward in their relationship. (laughs).

Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Junior’s Research, 2018 is a pastel and graphite-based work that shows a man with his back to the viewer standing in a pond filled with yellow and green lily pads. He is seen looking out into a lush green atmosphere, with clouds and a mountain range as he contemplates his surroundings, possibly his next moves in life. What immediately stands out is the grooves in his shirt and shorts indicating that it could be windy, which the artist captures peacefully.

The final work in the exhibition – or first depending on where you started – is A portrait of the artist as a shadow of his former self, 1980 by Kerry James Marshall. It shows a pitch-black character against a dark charcoal grayish background with a sneaky snide look as if he’s withholding a secret that only he knows. His hat and overcoat are the defining features aside from Marshall’s use of the color white to highlight the eyes, shirt, and large grin with the gap-tooth smile of the figure. I first saw this work in Marshall’s groundbreaking exhibition “Mastery” at the now-closed Met Breuer in New York City and also at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and it has always been a favorite of fans because of its strength in simplicity. If I ever get the chance, I’ll be sure to reference this work to see if what may have been hidden was ever revealed. 

After wandering for what seemed like hours through the Black American Portraits exhibition, I crossed over (actually I had to walk out and go around) to the gallery that housed The Obama Portraits, and my goodness this presentation was very extremely underwhelming. I had the opportunity to view the paintings on a trip to the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. when they were initially debuted to the public. There is truly no comparison of the venue when viewing the works amongst the portraits of other leaders and revered people in history. I don’t know what I expected, but I surely expected more of an exhibition design to accompany this stop on the tour. 

Upon entering the gallery you notice an emptiness, an open space with visitors in line – phone in hand – hoping to get the perfect selfie with the former President and First Lady’s portraits. Many of the visitors completely ignored and probably didn’t even see the work of Catherine Opie, (with works Kamala Harris, 2016 and Inauguration Portfolio, 2009), whose photographs were intended to be a precursor to the viewing of the paintings. There was also a small portrait of the former president taking the oath of office, with the first lady by his side by Karen Ballard (Untitled, 2009), but to many, it went highly unnoticed. To be honest, I missed it on the first go-round myself. 

There was also a small QR code that directed viewers to a video directed by Christine Turner titled Paint & Pitchfork, 2021 on the LACMA website, highlighting the practices of the commissioned artists, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, but it didn’t do much to keep visitors in the space. The only contrast in the room was a purple accented wall that included the title and a small description – which again went disregarded. It would’ve been a major win for LACMA and its curatorial presentation of the paintings if they could’ve added works from the collection to build a narrative about inaugurations, politics, or another connection. Or maybe even extend the works from the main show into the space in a more connected approach. Opportunity missed.

The Obama Portraits appear muted, understated even, as they seem to be devoured by the white walls in the space. I’d like to think any institution would roll out the red carpet and prepare the proper accoutrement for the arrival of a Presidential portrait, but in this case, I was wrong. I understand that not everyone can’t make it to the Smithsonian to see it in its proper setting, so I’m hoping that other locations have better plans for presentation. I think placing them in a smaller space could’ve been more impactful.

Overall, I wasn’t in favor of the salon-style curation and the number of works selected for the exhibition. It was contemporary overkill and a constant fight for attention as paintings seemed to encroach on the focus that accompanies viewing an artwork. This show features an augmented reality component that extends the exhibition’s experience outside of the display, which was exciting to see as new generations can learn about black portraiture in relative technology making it a bit easier for outreach. 

I desired more context on the works in this presentation – facts that could bring the viewer in with hopes of an educational “why” – instead of just faces in abundance. I saw a young kid continually ask his mother who each person was in almost every work during their visit. It highlighted the need for further explanation to guests with whom these faces and art practices are new and unfamiliar. 

I ended up seeing the exhibition about nine times and each time it just felt a little different. There was a revived interest in familiar works and minor discoveries in a few overlooked pieces but overall it provided the same incomplete feeling. It was a last-place finish, completely overshadowed by the presentation and context provided in neighboring exhibitions in the Pavilion. The show just felt rushed and unfulfilled. 

I found out around visiting for the fourth time, that many of the works on view came from LACMA’s recent acquisitions of works by African-Americans, and it kind of soured me a bit more on the exhibition. Was it a survey of Black American Portraiture or a display of the loot? Man, was I fooled. I did see a huge potential to go deeper and truly provide a research-rich display of the history of black portraiture and the gaze of the black photographer. Merging it with the advancements of the practice in contemporary culture without saturating the content to appease market speculation. Aren’t museums places of culture and education? Or have we redesigned them into art mini-malls that cater to a “buying” audience with a don’t touch policy?


Obscura Community Commission

Obscura Community Commission

We Come in Peace, 2022

Obscura will designate the commission theme or subject to photograph. As a photographer-oriented platform, we want to commission our community members to go out and photograph pressing issues happening today around the world. A team of 10 photographers are awarded the Community Commission to document events, people, or places. We also offer them a mentorship program and a curatorial partnership to help during the commission. Each artist will deliver a collection of 15 NFTs. – Text From Obscura

My idea in looking at Two Years After The Storm is a concentrated eye on the humanity beneath the glitz. Los Angeles, and other cities, have been hit very hard by the recent wave of viruses and homelessness and the citizens are trying to cope the best that they can. Looking at faces, places, and spaces to uncover the stories that reflect our reality. Below are the outtakes from the commission. You can find the final works at and mint them with a mint pass.

PayDay Advanced, 2022
Riding, Rolling, 2022
Property, 2022

Products of Empire

Products Of Empire

How do we look at the results of domination? How have the creation and destruction of empires throughout history affected the movements of governments, corporations, and local organizations? Empire, known primarily in its political form, is a construct of dominance between two states but it also represents an overarching master. The artists in the show look to deconstruct the thought of an empire through empirical research in their art-making.

January 22nd — February 19th

Art Share L.A.

Artists In The Exhibition:

Abel Alejandre, Morgan Barajas, Sharon Louise Barnes, Lavialle Campbell, Chukes, Pam Douglas, Jonah Elijah, Elmer Guevara, Kiara Aileen Machado, Evan Mendel, Zeal Harris, Allison Honeycutt, Kat Oldershaw, and Sam Pace.


Badir McCleary is an independent consultant. He holds an M.A. in Arts Business from Sotheby’s Institute of Art (Los Angeles/London) where he focused on emerging art markets. Having extensive contemporary art history knowledge and experience, Badir can tackle large projects with confidence, protecting and tracking deliverables and ensuring high-level success for clients. Badir was the Co-Owner and Director of Gallery 38 (Los Angeles), a project that produced exhibitions for emerging artists of color in South Los Angeles and helped contribute to several public projects globally, helping artists transform communities through visual aesthetics. (​@artabovereality​).

Products of Empire Installation Shot

Artist Talk – Kiara Aileen Machado
Artist Talk – Sharon Barnes
Artist Talk – Pam Douglas
Artist Talk – Abel Alejandre
Artist Talk – Zeal Harris


Fields, Factories, Fame, and Fallacies

Fields, Factories, Fame, and Fallacies

August 28th — September 26th

Art Share Los Angeles

Curators Statement

Artists In The Exhibition:

In this exhibition, the artists take a look into the forms of cultural and social reproduction interpreting these forms through materials and experiences. How does each of these categories play a role in the life cycle of humanity? Who are the characters? What are the events? What are the developments? What experiences do we pass along from each culture to advance the larger society? How has the work from the field transferred to large city factories? Where is the relationship between fame and fallacy? At what point does fame become enigmatic? What are the shared values of the art world? Of family? Of life? Marginalized under the media’s eye.


Badir McCleary is an independent consultant. He holds an M.A. in Arts Business from Sotheby’s Institute of Art (Los Angeles/London) where he focused on emerging art markets. Having extensive contemporary art history knowledge and experience, Badir can tackle large projects with confidence, protecting and tracking deliverables and ensuring high-level success for clients. Badir was the Co-Owner and Director of Gallery 38 (Los Angeles), a project that produced exhibitions for emerging artists of color in South Los Angeles and helped contribute to several public projects globally, helping artists transform communities through visual aesthetics. (​@artabovereality​).


Defiance Of Juncture

Defiance Of Juncture

What is defiance? Is it an action? An idea? Is it contained within a movement? An object? How does operating in that defiance define the point in time? How does defiance or the definition of defiance differ throughout time? “May You Live In Interesting Times”, the title for the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019, unknowingly predicted the sentiment of humanity just eight months later.

“Interesting Times” would prove to be an understatement, as the COVID-19 pandemic, alongside numerous uprisings in the country, gave way to the defiance of current conditions in many facets of our society. Analyzing these conditions has allowed for constant dialogue among humanity about the actions of the past and present and eventually how they will affect our future. This has given us the opportunity to create what’s to come.

July 10th — August 20th

Art Share Los Angeles

Curators Statement

Artists In The Exhibition:

@b4_flight, Leigh Barbier (@spongebarbier), Chelle Barbour (@chelle.barbour), Chantal Barlow (@chantalbarlow), Cody Bayne (@codybayne_official), Daniela Garcia (@dahnniii), Amoura Gonzales (@fuckinlame), Samira Idroos(@samiraidroos), Jessi Jumanji (@jessijumanji), Miriam Kruishoop (@mkruishoop), Carmen Mardonez (@desbordado), Michael Massenburg (@mmassenburg), Amy McCormac (@mccormacamy), Rosalyn Myles (@rozmyles), Duane Paul (@duanepaul), Isaac Pelayo (@isaacpelayo), Antonio Pelayo (@antoniopelayoproductions), Prime K2S (@Primek2s), Leigh Salgado (@leighsalgado), and Mark “Bit” Savage (@phenomenalmark).


Badir McCleary is an independent consultant. He holds an M.A. in Arts Business from Sotheby’s Institute of Art (Los Angeles/London) where he focused on emerging art markets. Having extensive contemporary art history knowledge and experience, Badir can tackle large projects with confidence, protecting and tracking deliverables and ensuring high-level success for clients. Badir was the Co-Owner and Director of Gallery 38 (Los Angeles), a project that produced exhibitions for emerging artists of color in South Los Angeles and helped contribute to several public projects globally, helping artists transform communities through visual aesthetics. (​@artabovereality​).


Portraits Of Yesteryear

Portraits Of Yesteryear

ArtAboveReality is pleased to present “​Portraits of Yesteryear​”, a group survey highlighting contemporary artists across multiple art practices. What do we remember about yesterday? How has it changed? What’s still as you remember it? Many people across the world have lost family members, jobs, and more which allows them to see through different eyes. These portraits are a reflection of a time we used to know – a show of humanity. Yesteryear, referring to a life-changing event is analyzed throughout these images allowing the artist a moment of reflection, and the viewer a chance to gain the artists’ perspective from their visual stories. Curated by Badir McCleary of ArtAboveReality.

December 5th — January 5th


Curators Statement

“Live the moment. Cherish the present. Anticipate the future. Frame the yesteryear” – Hlovate

Artists In The Exhibition:

Kwesi Abbensetts (@kwesiabbensetts), Amy McCormac (​@mccormacamy​), GreatJoy Ndlovu (@ngreatjoy1), Kemal Celnigir (@streetwiseLA), Elmer Guevara (@3lmski1), Nema Etebar (@nemaetebar), Jonah Jay (@jonah.elijah), Solomon Adufah (@solomonadufah), Erika Dickstein (@hagueNYC), J. Michael Walker (@jmichaelwalker1), Monica Seggos (@monicaseggos), Patrice Robinson (@patdowart), Neequaye Dreph (@dreph), and​ ​Andrew Navarro (@oogumvision).


Badir McCleary is an independent consultant. He holds an M.A. in Arts Business from Sotheby’s Institute of Art (Los Angeles/London) where he focused on emerging art markets. Having extensive contemporary art history knowledge and experience, Badir can tackle large projects with confidence, protecting and tracking deliverables and ensuring high-level success for clients. Badir was the Co-Owner and Director of Gallery 38 (Los Angeles), a project that produced exhibitions for emerging artists of color in South Los Angeles and helped contribute to several public projects globally, helping artists transform communities through visual aesthetics. (​@artabovereality​).

The exhibit will be on view to the public on the KunstMatrix (@kunstmatrix) platform ​from December 5th through January 5th (​Live Exhibition:​). Stay updated with the exhibition on social media via the hashtags #ArtAboveReality, #PortraitsOfYesteryear. Please contact​ for more information. Exhibit information available upon request. All images are subject to copyright. ArtAboveReality also partners with @artmoney for all of your art collecting needs.

“Live the moment. Cherish the present. Anticipate the future. Frame the yesteryear” – Hlovate

Portraits Of Yesteryear: Artist Talk – Amy McCormac 
Portraits Of Yesteryear: Artist Talk -Patrice Robinson and Monica Seggos 
Portraits Of Yesteryear: Artist Talk – Erika Dickstein and Nema Etebar
Portraits Of Yesteryear: Artist Talk – Elmer Guevara and Jonah Jackson
Portraits Of Yesteryear: Artist Talk -Andrew Navarro
Portraits Of Yesteryear: Artist Talk – Neequaye Dreph Diane and Greatjoy Ndlulovu


This Is NOT A Riot: Protests in Los Angeles

This Is Not A Riot: Protests in Los Angeles

2020 was a wild year. For everyone. From the pandemic to the repetitive news of unarmed black civilians being murdered by police, the countless blow of economic and emotional turmoil took their toll on the world and Black Americans in particular. The summer of 2020 was a breaking point for the citizens of the city of Los Angeles as the news of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery (alongside other racially involved incidents) prompted folks to take to the streets in protest against the brutality of Americans by law enforcement.” – Badir McCleary. Order Now! – Paperback Book Pre-Orders are available now on for $24.99. This title will be released with Barnes and Noble Press in Early March! For digital readers, you can also order the E-Book via the website and also on Amazon (for Kindle users) for $9.99. Thank you in advance!!


Protesters marching down Beverly Blvd
Protesters leaving Pan Pacific Park marching down Beverly Blvd
Protesters marching down Beverly Blvd
Visit the “This Is NOT A Riot” Virtual Exhibition Powered by



An All Colored Cast, Hank Willis Thomas at Kayne Griffin Corcoran

An All Colored Cast, Hank Willis Thomas at Kayne Griffin Corcoran

Nestled in a small gated space on La Brea, Kayne Griffin Corcoran presents itself as more of a Hollywood garden party than a contemporary art gallery. You almost have to be “in the know” to know that art openings are taking place here. Known for having its own personal James Turrell installation, the gallery played host to “An All Colored Cast” (I laugh at the irony as I write), a solo exhibition by Hank Willis Thomas. This exhibition was the first for Thomas in Los Angeles.

You are welcomed into the property’s courtyard by the bright orange of A Suspension of Hostilities, 2019, a replica of the “General Lee,” car made famous by the television show “The Dukes of Hazzard”. I immediately wondered how the patrons would react upon first glance with the confederate flag being a centerpiece of the famed auto, (you know, since everyone is so political now and forget it was part of Americana at one point) but felt confident that once I got inside and walked around the show a bit more, I’d find clarity. 

I arrived a bit early after visiting other spaces in the area to find the exhibition empty. Guests to the gallery were tuned into the artist walkthrough of a concurrent exhibition by San Diego based artist Raul Guerrero titled “Sonora Desert: Flora, Fauna & Artifacts, on view in the adjacent room. I took the opportunity to spend time with the art from Thomas’ show, trying to gauge how I felt about them before other ideas of interpretation could corrupt my experience. The work presents itself in large abstract forms, taking on the likenesses of earlier creations by esteemed modern artists. I thought of Noah Davis’ 2013 exhibition “Imitation of Wealth”, where he duplicated works of modern contemporary artists in an attempt to disrupt the classism in the access to quality art. I had prior knowledge of the “secret” contained in these works, so I started to do a little digging. Using modern tools (my iPhone) to wipe away the surface and reveal the real jewels hidden in plain sight. 

The secret to Thomas’ installation was you had to direct light at the artwork to get the extra effect. The illumination of light would reveal the underlying piece of the artistic puzzle. Taking a flash photo probably worked best I thought, but that’s usually against the rules in art spaces. Since no one was around, and I wanted to see. Like, really see. Fuck it. Let’s do it. I can always apologize (if I get caught, of course).

The first artwork I walked up to was Field Day (Test Pattern), 2019, a large horizontal panel, divided equally with a spectrum of eight colors that are lined vertically, giving reference to the SMPTE color bars. These bars are a television test pattern for the NTSC video standard in North America. Flash. As I looked down at the phone, the bars magically became transparent and a new image appeared! “Holy shit! What is this?” I thought, “Let me try this again.” You know because iPhones do some weird shit. Flash. It happened again! 

What’s shown under the color bars was a still photo of a man in blackface in a suit, smiling and standing around a group of black people. Some also smiling, and others with looks of disappointment. The verticality of the color bars allows each part of the image to be analyzed, bookmarked and separated from the whole for further investigation. Seeing the image as eight separate parts allowed for many main characters, giving each subject a renewed visibility through the detachment.

The crowd then moved into the gallery where “An All Colored Cast” was on view. Thomas began to give his insight on the execution of the work, alongside team members who also contributed their experiences throughout the process. We gathered in the center in the space as Thomas kept instructing everyone to move closer. I’m guessing so that everyone could hear clearly and he wouldn’t have to yell.

An installation titled Not So Easy, 2019, featuring a disassembled Harley Davidson style chopper was spread across the floor alongside a helmet designed with the colors of America and a matching gas cap among the panoply of motorcycle parts. It was like the late stuntman, Evil Knievel had crashed into the gallery and took off before anyone could identify him. I saw the dismantling of the bike almost as a portrayal of the fabric of American values in need of a tune-up.

As Thomas introduced the exhibition, he gave the audience insight into his youth growing up. He waxed eloquently about the images he and his mother (Deborah Willis, a notable artist/photographer, and curator) enjoyed watching on television, which greatly informed his upbringing, and how Black Hollywood shaped the family’s evening entertainment as images like the “General Lee” car was a mainstay in their everyday programming. Thomas further explained that during the research for this show, his team discovered the show’s producers had nearly three hundred replicas of the car – as it was continuously damaged during “The Dukes of Hazzard” filming. 

The confederate flag has long been a symbol synonymous with a period of high racial animosity, but in “The Dukes of Hazzard” television show, it’s attached to the car of the hero in the story. I likened Thomas’ story of his childhood entertainment experience to that of James Baldwin, who articulated during a debate with William Buckley, his conflict with the image of Gary Cooper in traditional American Western film. Baldwin expressed cheering on the hero Cooper, only to realize that the Native American “villains”, could be a visual representation of himself in the eyes of his countrymen.

Thomas continued his dialogue with the audience and spoke to the inspiration for the exhibition.  He lamented the influence of the modern art masters and how they impacted the series. He mentioned artists like Ellsworth Kelly, Andy Warhol, and Josef Albers whose familiar style of abstract shape can be identified immediately in Thomas’s presentation. 

We gathered in front of Deep South (Red Diagonal), 2019, which pays homage to Ellsworth Kelly’s work Red Diagonal, 2007, a beautiful oil on canvas work that features a painted white square overlaid by another canvas painted bright red, conjoining the two panels creating a unified sculptural work. In Thomas’s interpretation, he uses UV print on retroreflective vinyl mounted on Dibond to achieve the result.

After a short explanation of the work, Thomas invited a member of his team to shed further light on the process of developing the series. She also instructed people to move closer (Were we really that far away?) and turn on a light source from their cameras, which would allow patrons to follow along and see first hand the results of the process. Sounds of enjoyment filled the room as the patrons were able to discover what was hidden beneath the surface of the artwork which added a new element and offered an entirely different perspective on its meaning. I was able to focus on the reactions of the guests as I previously experienced their shock and awe moment when I first encountered the “secret” behind the work. 

Thomas and associates collectively explained what the image reveals when light is shone onto Deep South (Red Diagonal), 2019. What it shows is a promotional still from the 1975 movie “Mandingo,” in which a white woman presents a very demonstrative face while clutching the rope that is tied to the waist of a slave named “Mede” as he looks on in displeasure. The “Red Diagonal” in this work is used as a point of focus as it highlights the key elements in the image, which are the looks on the faces of the subjects contained within. I was unaware of the film until I began writing this essay. I decided to watch “Mandingo” to understand the context of the image and how it could elevate my perspective. Suddenly,  I grasped the many ways that the image in this work profoundly affected how I perceived it.

Various ways of comprehending the visual ran through my brain. In one case, I saw it as the artist speaking to the recent growing interest in art by people of color, specifically significant works by Africans and African-Americans. Specifically, how art is essentially “roped up” or consumed by deep-pocketed art dealers and collectors, looking to stay ahead of the latest flipper. If you’ve paid minimal attention in the last five years, you’d understand that “black art” has become a commodity for collectors and museums alike. These entities present themselves as lost sheep who are looking to make “corrections” while updating e their holdings to include contemporary black artists. I continue to laugh at this thought. 

The film “Mandingo” still represented to me the proverbial auction block that black artists have been on lately, gaining roster spots with dealers that traditionally looked past them. Now represented by these galleries, these new “prizefighters” mostly from a cast of people of color take on the task of winning fights (having strong exhibitions and sales), and breeding (being able to bring in other profitable friends) making a worthy investment for these institutions and galleries just as “Mede” was made to do as a slave in the film. Only when investigative articles are written, and tough questions are answered about art dealings, does any of this truth gain clarity. 

Could the artist also be insinuating that the inaccessibility to gallery spaces, media, and supportive patrons have suppressed black artists during this period? Hopefully, that’s something the artist will clarify as literature is developed for this exhibition.

The gallery attendant provided the guests with pairs of glasses, with lights attached, allowing viewers to walk the exhibition hands-free. Simultaneously, allowing those without iPhone lights and other devices to participate. Since I had already experienced the reveal of the process on my own time, I wanted to marvel at the real-time responses from the patrons. When the lights were turned off, the viewers became forensic scientists, using the provided tools to enhance their visibility, parsing through each artwork with finer detail. 

As Thomas guided us through the exhibition, he reiterated that the images reveal themselves under a direct light source like the Deep South art piece. As each work became the center of concentration, you could see the image come to life with the lights aimed in the same direction. When the work An All Colored Cast, 2019 was illuminated, I realized that Thomas made reference to Andy Warhol’s famed Ethel Scull 36 Times, 1963. This work featured Ethel Scull, the wife of art collector and magnate Robert Scull, with thirty-six different portraits, all with varying color backgrounds. What was really cool about this work was that it included photos of some of Hollywood’s elite stars, again allowing them to “share the stage” through the color division – just like the earlier work.

As we walked toward “People Just Like To Look At Me” (Spectrum IX), 2019 (probably my favorite piece in the exhibition), Thomas enlightened the guests on some of the backstories of the actors and actresses of Black Hollywood. I compare this work to that of Mickalene Thomas’ 2016 exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles titled “Do I Look Like A Lady?”. Her exhibition featured beautifully abstracted forms made from acrylic mirror and wood panel, where leading black women like Diana Ross would be memorialized. I could almost see that exhibition almost as an external precursor to “An All Colored Cast”, gaining inspiration from the viewing perspective of his mother, Deborah Roberts. Especially with Mickalene Thomas’s presentation, curating books, magazines, furniture, and carpets, recreating a black family living room atmosphere.

The sea of light focused on him acted as a spotlight would following a stand-up comedian doing their routine. Or police officers shining their high-beams of white light from their cars into the faces of young black men. Let’s keep it positive and go with the former. Thomas mentioned how many were forced into wearing blackface and portraying “Coon Characters” just to have the opportunity to grace the big screen. And by doing this, it opened up doors for the entertainers we love and enjoy today.

After the walk-through, I got a chance to speak with Thomas about my takeaways from the show. The forensic approach to fully understanding the series encourages the viewer to do a little more to get the intended result. I wondered if he and his team thought of that approach during the conception of the project. To my surprise, he was very interested in my perspective, as his team employed that type of thinking when creating the project, but without using that exact term.

At the end of the day, my question is, What are we shining a light on? If we were to take a deeper look beyond what’s on the surface, will we find the truth? Reality? Will we find change when we shine a light on these replicated situations? Maybe. But if I had to bet, it would be just another rerun. Another “General Lee” replacement vehicle for the hero.