Have We (Finally) Reached A Tipping Point For Black Art In America?
In 1807 Joshua Johnson painted The Westwood Children, a portrait of the sons of a wealthy Baltimore stagecoach maker. Johnson, the son of a white man and and a black slave woman, was sold at age 19 to a Baltimore farmer for £25, half the going rate for a young male field hand at the time. Though the rest of his story is still somewhat mysterious, we do know that he eventually made a living as an artist, and is widely regarded as the first African-American artist to do so. His portrait of the Westwood children now hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
What Johnson may not have known is that his legacy would still be celebrated centuries later, in a nation where artists of every color are much better represented and celebrated. In May 2017, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s untitled painting depicting a skull sold for $110.5 million–the highest price ever for a piece by any American artist. Black artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald were commissioned by Barack and Michelle Obama to paint their official portraits. Others, such as Kara Walker, Mickalene Thomas, and Toyin Ojih Odutola are some of the most exciting artists working in America today.
It’s also not just black artists making waves in the art world, but black collectors too. Perhaps most famously, Beyoncé and Jay-Z have amassed an extraordinary collection that includes works from Basquiat, Kara Walker, Awol Erizku and others. As if that wasn’t enough to solidify their patronage, they went to the Louvre to film the video for their new song Apeshit. It’s an anthem that commemorates the rise of the black artist, both visual or musical, as well as a nod to Bey & Jay’s powerful patronage. “I can't believe we made it,” Beyoncé sings in front of the Louvre’s canon of Eurocentric (i.e. White) art, before the video ends with a still shot of Marie Benoist’s Portrait d’une Négresse, one of the few portraits in the collection that focuses purely on a black subject. It’s a statement of both power and gratitude that turns the concept of racial representation in Western art on its head.
Beyond the world of pop music, collectors from various fields such as professional sports (the basketball player Amar'e Stoudemire) and business (beauty industry magnates Denise and Gary Gardner) have recently been in the spotlight for their patronage and support of black artists. Films like Black Panther, which is the first big superhero blockbuster with a black director and majority black cast, have recently brought black artists and concepts such as Afrofuturism even further into the mainstream.
Above image courtesy of Superfine! DC exhibitor Art Village Gallery: "The Cellist World" by Zainu Muduser
The result? A younger generation of collectors who are specifically interested in works by black artists, and value diversity as much as talent in their collections. Galleries such as Memphis’s Art Village and Petersburg, VA's Walton Gallery (showing at Superfine! DC this fall) have both taken note and focus on representing artists who inspire an appreciation for diversity. Other young artists such as Bethany Collins, Paul Anthony Smith, and Lina Iris Viktor have quickly gained a following of collectors who are passionate supporters of their work, all boding well for the future of diversity in American art.