“There have always been Black artists, there have always been Black curators, there have always been Black collectors. They perhaps have just not been part of the Mainstream.”

Rujeko Hockley 

On Feb. 9, HBO aired a new documentary directed by the renowned Sam Pollard, known for his work in the 1998 Academy Award-nominated documentary “4 Little Girls.” The documentary, “Black Art: In the Absence of Light,” is an enlightening, 90-minute-long experience cultivated by the insight of artists ranging from Carrie Mae Weems to Kehinde Wiley, alongside other notable curators, collectors and scholars. It is an analysis of every stepping stone that has helped forge the path for Black artists and the emergence of Black American art within a predominantly white sphere.

The documentary centers its narrative around David C. Driskell’s 1976 exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which compiled 200 years of art history using 63 carefully chosen artists. The event became a social-historical phenomenon by shining a light on the legacy of Black American artists. 

The discourse of “Black Art: In the Absence of Light” centers around institutions and their role in providing a sense of belonging. Museums, through their collection and exhibition practices, play a crucial part in the representation of the Black community, whose talent has long been ignored by mainstream American society. Art historian Maurice Berger, who gives his insight on the role of institutions throughout the film, exposes a clear problem of museum curation when he states that 85% of artists in the collections of American museums are white and that only a shocking 1.2% are Black. 

Driskell’s “Two Centuries” paved the way for the numerous movements, museums and exhibitions that emerged towards the end of the 20th century, facilitating the introduction of Black art in the mainstream fine art sphere. However, it has certainly not been a smooth path.  

The film recalls “Harlem on my Mind,” the 1968 exhibition showcased at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as a hypocritical and wrongful display of “Black art.” While the show was centered around the African-American community, it showcased zero Black artists. This, alongside the emerging Civil Rights Movement, became an impetus for rethinking who decides which stories get told and in what way. In a sense, a lot of the reactionary exhibitions that came thereafter sought to take viewers out of their comfort zones and to challenge the previous conventionality of the art. 

This is exemplified in another exhibition the film calls attention to: “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art” at the Whitney Museum of New York in 1994, which was curated by Thelma Golden, another important figure throughout the documentary. “‘Black Male,’” in the words of Kehinde Wiley, the artist behind former President Barack Obama’s portrait, “looked at the body as a sign of strength. It looked at masculinity as a sign of performance. It looked at femininity as an invention.”

This exhibition reshaped the meaning of Blackness and maleness in visual culture. In the documentary, images of the exhibit and cutouts of media critiques are shown, allowing the spectator to see how something so controversial had become liberating and illuminating for many but bewildering and perturbing to others. It’s amusing to read that what the press had to say echoed the exhibition’s original intention: a sort of artistic rebellion.

Black art has been there since the foundation of this nation: As Theaster Gates, the artist who concludes the film, said, “We are part of a continued renaissance — it’s been happening.” But now it’s time to make Black art part of the mainstream and the public eye. To become “great makers in the absence of light.”

After dissecting and deconstructing “Black Art: In the Absence of Light,” I appreciate the value of the whole and the importance of every featured voice — many of which I was unfamiliar with and others for whom my interest grew stronger. It is comforting to see Black art flourish and get its rightful recognition.

However, the documentary could be more succinct. In and of itself, it is a sort of exhibition. It deals with the impact that two generations of artists had on today’s artists and it acts as a general summary of what an arbitrary selection of Black artists have accomplished since. It is an analysis of various themes within a culture too frequently considered monolithic. And it is also a chronology of an important institutional infrastructure that has exponentially grown in the new millennium. All these topics on their own could fill a documentary to the brim.

After the documentary ended, I was left with the sense that I had too much to process. This isn’t particularly negative, because it means Pollard accomplished what he set on to do — to enlighten and incite reflection. 

However, the multiplicity of topics and voices was somewhat overwhelming. It took me substantial contemplation and time to formulate a solid opinion on the film and properly take in every piece of information. I suppose “too much” is better than “too little” — especially during Black History Month, a cultural moment that finds itself in a place between tension and hopefulness. Regardless of this critique, I have found myself recommending the film left and right because it will surely make you think, whether you’re interested in art or not.

Kara Walker, best known for her black cut-paper silhouettes that explore topics of race, identity and sexuality, puts it rather perfectly: “Love the work or hate the work, you have to reckon with it, if not you are not reckoning with the history of this country.”

Daily Arts Contributor Cecilia Duran can be reached at ccduran@umich.edu.