‘Black Art: In the Absence of Light’ on HBO Places 21st Century Black Artists in Limelight

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As significant discussions continue to emerge on systemic racism and the underrepresentation of Black artist art markets, activists are determined more than ever to project the narratives of Black Americans. The documentary, Black Art: In the Presence of Light which was directed and produced by Sam Pollard premiered on HBO’s website on February 9, 2020.

The film creates a magnanimous sense of awareness for a select group of Black visual artists—representative of the whole— who carry with them traces of prolific talents that preceded them. The HBO documentary was inspired by David Driskell’s ground-breaking exhibition, Two Centuries of Black American Art, which was held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976. Pollard told Complex that a year before he was commissioned to direct the film, it was Henry Louis Gates who approached HBO about doing a documentary on Driskell’s. When Pollard met Driskell in January 2019, they began to conversate about the birth of the exhibit, how it was curated and what informed the process.

Before Driskell passed away at age 88 in April 2020 due to COVID-19, Pollard was fortunate to have spent ample time with him, learning about his history and observing him paint. Driskell, who also featured in the film, has been widely acclaimed by contemporary Black artists for paving a path for their visibility. “He was a trailblazer for all of us, and when there were no Black voices in the art world, for him to assert himself in the way that he did, helped move us forward during a time when we were still fighting for space in museums and galleries.”- Amy Sherald.

It’s worthy of mention that Driskell is an art scholar and professor at the University of Maryland, acclaimed painter, curator, and historian, whose immense accomplishment in the American art ecosystem fetched him accolades. In 2000, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by Ex-president Bill Clinton. The subsequent year, the University of Maryland erected the David C, Driskell Center to honour him for conserving the African-American art heritage. Throughout his lifetime he was awarded thirteen honorary doctoral degrees in art, authored seven books on African-American art, and published forty exhibition catalogues. Driskell was honoured by President Bill Clinton as a recipient of the National Humanities Medal in 2000.

The echoing voices, perspectives, and intriguing artworks of the artists Amy Sherald, Kehinde Wiley, Carrie May Weems, and Kerry James Marshall exude an optimistic assurance of Black artists attaining more visibility, inclusion, and transcendence in the future. Pollard shares with Complex, his exciting encounters with the artists while he worked on the film, “Watching these artists creating. You can’t ask for better, to be in that close. To be in Kerry James Marshall’s space, that’s one of the most important things for us all to understand: The importance of the process of creating. That, to me, is a fabulous pleasure, and it answers the question people ask sometimes: This is not just a job for me. This is like a pleasure. How humans work, it’s a real pleasure.”

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