LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)’s Black American Portraits, co-curated by Christine Y. Kim and Liz Andrews, is all that it’s hyped to be and more. Conceived of as a part two of sorts to David Driskell’s 1976 landmark exhibition Two Centuries of Black American Art at LACMA, the new exhibition features over two centuries of artworks centering Black artists and subjects.
Following a roughly linear timeline, the show starts with a rare painting from the 1800s and unfolds with several artworks from the Harlem Renaissance, featuring portraits from relatively anonymous sitters to notable figures such as Frederick Douglass and Marian Anderson. That first wall alone, grounding the history of the United States through the lens of Black Americans, was a revelation; it was a revelation to see so starkly that the people I’ve always wondered about — those who have historically been excluded from the spotlight, missing from museum walls — had always been there all along.
Underscoring this sentiment is an entire section dedicated to retelling the story of the United States, with Titus Kaphar’s 2014 piece “Behind the Myth of Benevolence” acting as a perfect summation. His portrait, peeling back the well-known portrait of Thomas Jefferson to reveal the face of Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman at Monticello, highlights the people who have both literally held up America through their labor and their lives, and figuratively held America to its highest, self-proclaimed ideals.
Other historical works include daguerreotypes, tintypes, and other forms of early photography, shown alongside hauntingly beautiful black and white images of modern photographers like Roy DeCarava and Dawoud Bey. This selection of photographs — and the omission of the medium’s particularly dark history, tied to scientific endeavors to classify the Black body as objects, never subjects — is a conscious effort on the part of the curators to counter representations of Blackness as characterized by oppression. Instead, the narrative that Kim and Andrews choose to present is one full of celebration, affirmation, and love.
Heartwarming moments abound throughout the show. One highlight is a particularly show-stopping wall, hung with paintings by monumental artists, one after another: Barkley L. Hendricks, Amy Sherald, Kehinde Wiley, and Mickalene Thomas. Combined, not only do the artworks tell a formal art history of figurative painting informed by the realism and flatness of photography, but they also tell the story of a friendship and a mutual recognition between artists working within the same legacy. Similarly, Augusta Savage’s bust of Gwendolyn Knight decades prior recounts a relationship of mentorship and solidarity between the two artists, perhaps creating the systems of support that they needed. Lastly, rafa esparza’s tender portrait of Patrice Cullors underlines the important role of artists in social and cultural movements — not just as adjacent to, in service of, or merely illustrating them — but as fully a part of a community of thinkers, friends, and supporters, who only together can imagine new possibilities.
Just as restorative as seeing the exhibition itself was seeing the public’s reaction. Visitors tugging at the sleeves of their companions to show them, “Look! It’s an oil painting, it’s not a print — can you believe that?” (referring, of course, to Kehinde Wiley’s masterfully executed paintings). Visitors getting closer for a second and third look (noticing, for example, the quilted material of Bisa Butler’s portraits). And visitors taking selfies with, alongside, and sometimes even in, the artworks (deliberately so, in the case of Glenn Kaino’s mirrored pieces). The public’s overwhelmingly joyful response speaks to how powerful of an experience art can be when you can finally see yourself relating to and reflected in the history of art.
Black American Portraits pays homage to today’s renaissance of Black figurative art, acknowledging the artistic achievements of Black artists and their contributions in rewriting the art historical canon, with all the celebration and the gravity deserved.
Black American Portraits continues at LACMA (5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Mid-Wilshire, Los Angeles) through April 17. The exhibition was curated by Christine Y. Kim and Liz Andrews.
Correction: A previous version of this review incorrectly identified the man in Titus Kaphar’s portrait as George Washington instead of Thomas Jefferson. We apologize for the error which has now been amended.