Beyond Black History Month: Celebrating Black Artists Year-Round

We’ve entered a new year, and we have a new administration, yet the challenges that we face as Americans are as old as any of us can remember. Every February, we celebrate Black History Month and then feel like we have done our part in recognizing both the adversity and the contributions of Black Americans in the making of America as we know it. However, I would argue that recognition limited to this one month, the shortest month of the year in fact, is not enough.

Understanding and celebrating Black history is critical to the unification and healing that our country so deeply needs. What has been obvious to Black communities for the past couple of centuries, has finally made its way into broader American awareness, amplified by the events of 2020. This awareness is most welcome, but it is our response to the awareness that will be the most important thing.

Part of the response that is needed is the investment in, and support of, Black-owned organizations, Black entrepreneurs, and especially Black artists and changemakers. According to McKinsey, the Black-white wealth gap in the United States has the best chance of being addressed by the intentional building of healthy Black-owned businesses, which I would extend to include all enterprising endeavors in Black communities. My own experience and the research carried out by McKinsey demonstrates, Black entrepreneurs and Black-owned businesses face far more economic and market barriers than their white counterparts, such as access to capital. For example, Black business owners are half as likely as white business owners to receive full financing for their business.

Jane and I believe it is crucial that we make a point to invest in all enterprising endeavors, including the work of Black artists. As a builder, art and design have always been important to me because they are the confluence of what we bring to our network. When I began collecting many years ago, I made it a point to curate a collection that is centered on the work of Black people and other artists of color in the United States and beyond. This month, as I was thinking about ways to celebrate and support Black History Month, I wanted to bring attention to some of the artists I have encountered whose work is committed to recounting and celebrating Black history year-round.

Bisa Butler

In my work I am telling the story— this African American side— of the American life. History is the story of men and women, but the narrative is controlled by those who hold the pen. My community has been marginalized for hundreds of years. While [we] have been right beside our white counterparts experiencing and creating history, our contributions and perspectives have been ignored, unrecorded and lost.” —Bisa Butler, Artist Statement

Bisa Butler is a New Jersey-based textile artist who is known for her colorful portraits depicting Black subjects she encounters in historical photographs. Butler’s portraits, which are constructed entirely out of fabric and thread, are transformed into vibrant, large-scale quilts.

Scouring the archives, Butler uses photographs dating from the 1870s through the 1930s, unearthing photos of Black people whose names and details about their lives were never recorded. The portraits that she creates of these figures restore a sense of dignity and vitality to her subjects, and are suggestive of who they might have been and what their life might have been like.

Each quilt takes anywhere from 100 to 2,000 hours to create. Butler uses West African fabric, kente cloth, and Dutch wax prints to further connect her subjects to the African continent from which they descend. Furthermore, the fact that these portraits are rendered in quilt-form is meaningful from a historical perspective: it links Butler’s contemporary practice to the long-established African American tradition of quilting. As artists like Bisa Butler and Sanford Biggers (below) remind us, African Americans have been quilting since they arrived in America. Quilts were not only to keep warm, but to tell stories, to create beauty, and to communicate coded messages.

Bisa Butler’s work (and one of our own treasured pieces) is currently featured in the exhibition titled "Bisa Butler: Portraits" at The Art Institute of Chicago until September 6, 2021. To learn more about the artist, visit her website here.

Radcliffe Bailey

"My art is about history and the mystery of history." —Radcliffe Bailey, Artist Statement

Radcliffe Bailey, based in Atlanta, is a painter, sculptor, and mixed media artist who combines various techniques to create pieces layered with meaning, often incorporating found objects and materials. His work explores African American history, yet remains in conversation with the daily contemporary experience of ancestry, race, migration, and collective memory.

Bailey’s work is connected to history, not just through the themes that he investigates, but also through the materials he chooses to work with. He has been known to use vintage family photographs, piano keys, sheet music, African statues, train tracks, Georgia clay, vinyl records, bottle caps, and a myriad other aged or antique items. Bailey weaves these objects into sculpture, collage, and paintings, with the result being a layered and multi-dimensional piece of art that is in conversation with the narratives of African American history.

The role of travel in history is a recurring theme in his work. For example, "Water," which was part of the Memory as Medicine exhibition highlighted the historical suffering that came about as a result of enslaved people crossing the Atlantic. The title of the exhibition says it all: the memory of our shared histories, and the reworking of the narrative, have the potential for creating understanding and healing the trauma that has been suffered by so many.

More about Radcliffe Bailey and his exhibitions can be found here.

Kara Walker

"I’m fascinated with the stories that we tell. Real histories become fantasies and fairy tales, morality tales, and fables. There’s something interesting and funny and perverse about the way fairytale sometimes passes for history, for truth." —Kara Walker, Interview with the artist

Kara Walker was raised in California and Atlanta, before making her way to New York City, where she currently lives and works. As an artist, she works across mediums such as drawing, painting, film, puppetry, text, sculpture, and cut-paper silhouettes to examine the historical narratives around racism; slavery; physical, sexual, and psychological violence; and gender and racial representation in art.

Walker is most well-known for her black cut-paper silhouettes, which cover a large surface, usually a white wall. The provocative narratives depicted by her silhouettes are often sexual and/or violent in nature, in which Walker both exposes the lasting impact of historical violence while also questioning racial and gendered stereotypes that dominate contemporary understanding. She does so by mixing fact with fiction—testimonial slave narratives, historical novels, minstrel shows, stories from the antebellum South—all of which serve as her inspiration.

The use of a silhouette is also important in her work because it is historically linked to the Victorian-era "feminine" art technique—shadow portraits. Walker also employs this technique of paper silhouettes because of its ability to portray human form without specific faces, the ways that the shapes play tricks on the eyes, and the fact that it is linked to the concept of the "shadow" and "darkness."

More about Kara Walker and her exhibitions can be found here.

Sanford Biggers

"[T]extiles themselves tell the story of history and commerce and trade and cultural cross-pollination. (...) They’re not made in a vacuum, in a plant someplace where they’re sterile. They’ve had hands, they’ve had bodies, they’ve got stains—that’s a good metaphor for history itself." —Sanford Biggers, Interview with the artist

Sanford Biggers was born and raised in Los Angeles before landing in New York City in 1999. He is a multidisciplinary artist that has worked across mediums including sculpture, painting, mixed media, performance art, conceptual art, and film. Biggers’ work is often social-justice-oriented as it touches on themes related to the Black experience, violence in America, and the cultural and political history of the United States.

Biggers has been well-known for his conceptual installations which demonstrate the violence that is regularly experienced by Black Americans. Recently, however, his revolutionary alterations of antique American quilts have garnered a lot of attention. In his current exhibition at The Bronx Museum of the Arts that runs through April 5, 2021, Codeswitch, Biggers has compiled over 50 of his quilt-based works. The pieces that are on display are a collection of mixed media paintings and sculptures that either include portions of quilts or are done on the surface of the quilts themselves. Biggers intends these pieces to be an "archive of an ongoing material conversation that acquires new meanings over time."

Biggers considers research to be an important part of his artistic process and has spent considerable time researching the history of the Underground Railroad and how quilts were used as codes and messages to help African Americans safely navigate their way to freedom. In joining the archives of history through his work, Sanford Biggers contributes a sense of transcendental mysticism to larger themes of racial stereotypes, African American history, and contemporary urban culture.

Check out his current exhibition here, or to read more about the artist, visit his website here.

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