reflections on diversity in fine arts
I am a museum junkie. It is the cheapest thing to do in any city and a way to kill time. In the summer when internships do not pan out the way I want to, or on breaks from school where I need to occupy my time, museums are an escape from staring at my computer screen. All I need is train fare and whatever cash that is in my pocket. If the museum is funded by the Bloomberg Foundation, admission is a suggested donation.
Even at school I have at times taken a break from the boredom of classes by visiting exhibits on campus or at RISD. Appreciating art and knowing what I like are cheap hobbies to have. I don’t think of myself as an art expert. I have never taken an art history class, nor do I create visual art. However, I grew up learning about African American artists and was introduced to many by my family. While I have never studied cubism and its meaning in the 20th century, I can point out the themes derived from African Diasporic history that are represented in Romare Bearden’s interpretation of The Odyssey. I know Jamaican fine artist Michael Escoffery personally and I have met the wife of Harlem Renaissance photographer James Van Der Zee. Faith Ringgold’s illustrations were an important part of my childhood.
Art museums and other accessible, low cost public services have power. Services like Public Broadcasting or Public Radio or nationally funded arts programs, museums, and archives are important in a democratic society, because they dictate national discourse. What makes its way into public knowledge is decided by what the public has access to and what remains in the shadows. It is why those in the Congressional Black Caucus fought for so long to have a National Smithsonian Museum dedicated to Black history and culture: Representation in public discourse matters.
So when I heard that an African American artist was having an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Breuer building I thought, here is the chance for art that is often tokenized to get its fair due. Then I saw the exhibit was called Mastery and I became giddy. Here was a Black fine artist claiming a title that was almost exclusively used by white men.
I know that this is not the first exhibit of an African American museum and that other museums, affordable and open to the public, have been amazing about including diverse content in their repertoire for years. A few years ago the Brooklyn museum had an exhibit about sneaker culture in the United States. This exhibit combined topics of race, American history, pop culture, gender, and class in ways that were informative, creative, and interesting. The opening night of the exhibit the museum was filled with Black fathers and sons looking to see up close the first pair of Jordans and understand sneaker culture from a different perspective. Even though museums like the Brooklyn Museum and the Studio Museum of Harlem have always made diversity and inclusion a part of their mission, something about the Met’s Kerry James Marshall: Mastery exhibit that makes me feel like something is different in the art industry.
Kerry James Marshall was born in 1955 in Birmingham, Alabama, but grew up in South Central Los Angeles. Although he is best known for his large-scale murals narrating history, politics, and daily life of Black people in the United States, his work varies in terms of medium from painting to sculpture to comic book strips, as well as incorporating a multitude of artistic forms like abstraction, landscape, figurative, or narrative painting. A profile in Art News writes that Marshall had been interested in art since he was in kindergarten, and in elementary school he fostered his skill and gained more inspiration from teachers, TV shows, comic books, and the Black Panther meetings several blocks away from the housing project he lived in with his family in the late 1960s. While attending Otis College of Arts and Design in 1978, where he would graduate with a BFA, Marshall was concerned with thoughts of representation, diversity, and inclusion within the art world. At the time this concern manifested in one of his first works (featured in the exhibit), A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, a small portrait of a black man dressed in all black with a black hat. The man almost blends into the background with his eyes, teeth, and shirt collar as defining features in the portrait. Marshall shares that the portrait was inspired at the time by the novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and the ways in which black artists are not visible to the mainstream art world.
This work was displayed at the exhibition Mastery, which was at the Met Breuer until January 29. This exhibit was a survey of 35 plus years of work and includes over 80 personal works plus various works from the Met’s main collection as well as pieces from other museum collections. With the works featured in this exhibition, Marshall wanted to challenge the Western art canon to be more inclusive. To accomplish this there are two parts to the exhibit: The curated collection of his works and the curated collection of the masters Marshall learned from. His works told his story of the black experience in America, not as a tokenized history but a humanized story. So along with paintings related to the Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Movement and Black Power Movement were photos of post-industrial American cities, a painting of an intimate moment between lovers, or a painting of a black artist in her studio. They showed the black person as a person whose body should be represented in the art world. The works he chose as his inspiration included a diverse array of modern and renaissance fine artists like Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence, Venetian painter Paolo Veronese, along with famous Japanese artists like Katsushika Hokusai and continental African sculptures like the Senufo oracle figure.
So what exactly felt different? I was not just happy that I got to see art with Black people in it. I do not look to the Met for validation that Black people can be fine artists. However, on that day in the museum with my mom, I felt that Mastery is not gendered, or colored, or classed. Black life goes beyond politics and police brutality. Kerry James Marshall’s exhibition at the Met opens the doors for other black and brown artists to be financially successful. And that culture expands to move those at the margins closer to the center.