“Black American Portraits” offers intimate glimpse of the African-American psyche

“The Black culture’s story and the White culture’s story are as different as night and day. We share the same sky, the same county and the same air, but our human experience has been as different from one another as you can get. It’s the year 2000, but will White people ever know the souls of Black folks? I don’t think so.” 

—Award Winning Actor Charles S. Dutton

The visual arts here in the United States have been so dominated by Western civilization and the Eurocentric tradition that alternative points of view are both welcome and perhaps necessary, if only to offer a more balanced and nuanced perspective world view. To its credit, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has accumulated a score of artwork by and related to people of color since it’s 1938 inception. Recently, the museum has repurposed part of this collection to form the nucleus of its current presentation of “Black American Portraits,” (running through April 17, 2022), piggy-backing on the “The Obama Portraits Tour,” the well-publicized paintings of the former first couple Barack (executed by L.A.’s own Kehinde Wiley) and Michelle (rendered in oil on linen by Amy Sherald) Obama (Running through Jan. 2, 2022).

The Obama paintings are on loan from Washington, DC’s National Portrait Gallery as part of a five-city tour.

This presentation might be seen as a followup to “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” the groundbreaking 1976 exhibit mounted at LACMA by educator and historian David C. Driskell. An accomplished artist in his own right, Driskell (who passed away last year of COVD-19 related causes) has a piece of his own included in the nearly 150 works in this current exhibition.

Driskell was also notable as a consultant to celebrity art collectors such as Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey, and was instrumental in the inclusion of Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City” to the White House art collection, the first canvas by a Black painter to be selected.

The current production is co-curated by LACMA’s Christine Y. Kim, and Liz Andrews, who is the executive director at Atlanta’s Spelman Museum of Fine Art. It dates back to 1800, and features a hodge-podge of mediums and styles including painting, photography, sculpture, and non-traditional substances. 

Bisa Butler’s “Forever” is an intriguing riff on the venerated African-American tradition of quilt-making, in which she uses cotton, silk, wool and velvet to fashion a likeness of the late actor Chadwick Boseman into an eight-by-four-foot panel. Originally a painter, Butler traded in her brushes for a sewing machine when pregnancy made the stench of paint force her to change mediums.

Each of the pieces in this collection has a similar, compelling story behind it’s conception and execution. While Black contributions to American music are well documented, the exhibit shows an equal impact on the visual culture of the United States.

“Black American Portraits” and “The Obama Portraits Tour” are on view at LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion, at 5905 Wilshire Blvd., in Los Angeles, just east of Fairfax Blvd. The museum is open between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. and admission is $20 for L.A. County residents with I.D. For more reservations and information visit https://www.lacma.org/.

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