Washington, D.C.

Visual Art and the American Experience at the African American Museum of History and Culture

In the art world, we don’t talk often enough about the ways in which class defines museums—in particular, art museums—in that their contents are largely formed by the tastes and investments of the rich. There is no other conceivable explanation for the way institutions continue to represent the nation’s art largely as the work of individuals who are White and male.

Visual Art and the American Experience, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture Architectural Photrography

Visual Art and the American Experience, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C.

It is in this context that the visual-art component of the brand-new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) plays a crucial role, not only for the institution itself, but as a historical corrective. The NMAAHC, a spectacular addition to the many museums on and around the Mall in Washington, D.C., is this country’s largest cultural destination “devoted exclusively to exploring, documenting, and showcasing the African American story and its impact on American and world history.” As such, it covers a lot of historical and cultural ground between the 15th century and the present in almost overwhelmingly rich displays of text, image, video, and artifact, from the enslavement of Africans to all aspects of African American life.

The suggested route for visitors begins at a deep, subterranean level—its confines evoking the narrow space of a slave ship’s hold—and progresses upward through multiple levels to the Culture Galleries located on the top floor. There, a complex, circular multimedia exhibition fills the floor’s center, introducing five aspects of African American and African diasporic culture: fashion, food, craft, literature, and movement. Three large exhibitions fill the remainder of the floor, chronicling the history of African Americans in theater, film, and TV; in music; and in visual arts.

In the galleries that present Visual Art and the American Experience, paintings, sculpture, works on paper, photographs, and multimedia works serve as both evidence and inspiration in the overall story of African American achievement. Each is displayed with the kind of accessible yet thorough label that is characteristic of a museum of history and culture, using language that assumes no special insider’s knowledge. Works by prominent and lesser-known African American artists are shown side by side.

David Driskell. Behold Thy Son, 1956. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Copyright David C. Driskill.

David Driskell. Behold Thy Son, 1956. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Copyright David C. Driskell.

One highlight is Afrofuturist Jefferson Pinder’s wonderful Mothership (Capsule) (2009), a life-sized space capsule made principally out of wood used for the stage at Obama’s 2008 inauguration. Across the gallery, in the section denoted “The Beauty of Color and Form,” heart-stoppingly gorgeous paintings from the ’60s and ’70s by Felrath Hines, Ed Clark, and Mavis Pusey suggest that there are many African American artists whose 20th-century careers and influence in the history of American art have yet to be fully explored or defined. For a variety of audiences—ranging from academics to collectors—such a process of revision and reassessment will be an important corrective. As just one example, Hines’s mesmerizing squares of cream and yellow on a gray background hint at his background in design as well as his affinity with painters like Ad Reinhardt and Ellsworth Kelly.[1]

Jefferson Pinder. Mothership (Capsule), 2009; mixed media.

Jefferson Pinder. Mothership (Capsule), 2009; wood from President Obama’s inaugural platform, salvaged tin, 22 in. chrome rim; with audio by Sun Ra and Stevie Wonder.

In light of the controversy around Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till in the Whitney Biennial, it is both moving and instructive to see David Driskell’s 1956 work made in commemoration of Till, murdered only the year before this canvas was painted. Behold Thy Son shows a mother reaching her hands to cradle the flayed-looking form of her child’s cross-shaped body.

Works by a number of widely known African American artists are in the exhibition as well: Lorna Simpson and Kara Walker, for example, as well as historical figures such as Jacob Lawrence, Aaron Douglas, and Elizabeth Catlett. As for the notable absences—works by Black artists whose role can be described as canonical, such as Martin Puryear and Kerry James Marshall, or the three African American artists who have represented the U.S. at the Venice Biennale: Robert Colescott, Fred Wilson, and Mark Bradford—the NMAAHC is a brand-new institution. As a curator reminded me, museums receive the vast majority of the pieces in their collections through donation.

Visual Arts and the American Experience, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Visual Arts and the American Experience, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The exhibitions on view now may be described as permanent, but art—and history—will continue to be made. In all likelihood, works by the aforementioned artists, as well as by Kehinde Wiley, Glenn Ligon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mickalene Thomas, and Ellen Gallagher, will soon enter the collection, fulfilling a mission described as “raising the profile of American artists of African descent from the periphery of the American art canon to its center and replaces the moniker, ‘African American art,’ with the more appropriate designation of American art.”[2] In the meantime, a walk through the galleries is exhilarating, inspiring, and informative.

Visual Art and the American Experience is on permanent view at the African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington, D.C.


 

[1] Uninterested in making work relevant solely to African American social causes, Hines declined to participate in the Whitney Museum’s show of contemporary Black artists in America in 1971.

[2] https://nmaahc.si.edu/visual-art-and-american-experience.

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