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HBO's 'Black Art' Indicts The Forces That Marginalize It


In 1976, the African American artist and educator David Driskell earned a place in art history with a groundbreaking exhibition. It was called "Two Centuries Of Black American Art," and it was the first major show by a Black curator to look at the history of art produced by African Americans. The exhibition is the starting point of a new documentary on HBO called "Black Art: In The Absence Of Light." The film is a celebration of Black American art. It is also an indictment of the forces that keep marginalizing it in our culture. Sam Pollard is the director. He and I talked about the legacy of Driskell's art show.

SAM POLLARD: I think what it did was introduce to America and to the world that there were a tremendous number of African American artists who were finally getting their recognition. American art just wasn't, you know, the people that we see in the museums - that I grew up seeing in museums, but it included African Americans - different styles, different approaches, from painting to sculpture, that were important to recognize.

MARTIN: That leads me to this question. This exhibit that Driskell put on in 1976, your film - both raise the question around whether or not there is such a thing as a Black aesthetic. What are your thoughts on that?

POLLARD: Rachel, this is what I'm going to say very succinctly. There is a Black aesthetic. It's important to have a Black aesthetic. We should not feel and fall into this notion that I grew up with that you should become a part of the American melting pot and forget who you are. I was told as a young man in the '60s, don't think about being a Negro - which was the term then - think about becoming an American. But that's not possible, you know? So there definitely should be a Black aesthetic. That doesn't take away from the fact that we are still Americans. But we should have - be able to have our own sense of identity.

MARTIN: To that end, can you explain the significance of the Studio Museum in New York and what it was? I mean, was it - just its existence, was it an end in and of itself or a platform to some wider cultural recognition of Black art?

POLLARD: I think it was a platform for wider recognition of Black art. As Mary Schmidt Campbell says in the film, people didn't think there needed to be a Black museum. But there needed to be. Like, it's the same reason we need to have "Two Centuries" - because there was no one recognizing the importance and the impact of African American visual artists. And the Studio Museum was the first place to really do that and shine a light on that - I mean, within New York City. We can't forget that the HBCUs have been doing it for years, you know? But the Studio Museum was going to give rationale to show it to a wider variety of people.

MARTIN: We should just say, HBCUs, for many, many years, have been showing Black art and making it a crucial part of what they offer to the public.

POLLARD: That's exactly right. That's why they were important. They were an important incubator for many Black artists.

MARTIN: So that's interesting, though. The Studio Museum - you think it was necessary, then, to have a platform to then push Black art into some kind of mainstream - that it wasn't enough to just make the art for art's sake and be satisfied with it living within the community.

POLLARD: Well, it's a double-edged sword in a way, you know, Rachel. It should be there for the community. But it should also be understood that it's something that the mainstream should be aware of. So it's a little bit of a double-edged sword, you know? Basically, we want to create art for ourselves. But we want that art to be created so other people outside the community can be aware of it. That's the rationale from my perspective.

MARTIN: You feature Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, the artists who painted the portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama. How have those artists, those portraits changed the trajectory of Black art in America, do you think?

POLLARD: It's the same way that the fact that Barack Obama was president of the United States. It's the ability for us to be able to have young people, people of all ages - Black people in particular I'm speaking to - go into the Smithsonian and see those images of Barack and Michelle and know that every president - you know, a little 7-year-old Black girl, like, you know, can look up at that picture of Michelle Obama, and says, I can aspire to that, you know? And you don't have to say they need to aspire to Bill Clinton or Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Teddy Roosevelt because these people are up there in those museums now that look like me.

MARTIN: There is a statistic in this film that honestly blew my mind. It said in a survey of major American museums, it was found that 85% of the art in these museums was produced by white artists, 15% produced by artists of color and just over 1% was produced by Black artists. Do you see that changing right now?

POLLARD: Slowly, Rachel, slowly (laughter). America is slow to want to catch up, you know, and recognize people other than white people in this country. You see it. I mean, look at our social and political history in the last four years.

MARTIN: Where are the points of leverage for that change? I mean, the artists are there. They're making the work. So what - is it gallery owners? Is it the public? Is it museum directors? Who are the gatekeepers?

POLLARD: It's everybody. It's the people on the board of directors, which need to have more people of color, like Henry Louis Gates, who's on some of these boards. It's the collectors who have to be yelling (ph) at these museums that you need more, you know, Black inclusion or people of color inclusion. It's the masses basically saying - when I go into these museums, when they have to fill out those opinion polls - so what'd you think of this exhibit? Well, how come there isn't Faith Ringgold's work up there or Betye Saar or Alison Saar? You know - which you see more of, you know? You've got to keep pushing the envelope.

MARTIN: Artist Theaster Gates says near the end of the film that Black artists have to be willing to make art when there is no light. Talk a little bit more about the significance of that. I thought it was a really profound statement.

POLLARD: Well, this is what he's saying. This is what he's articulating. It's the fact that for many, many years, African American artists, like him and others, have been making work, basically, that has not been recognized by the mainstream public. And you can't forget that, you know. And don't let yourself become co-opted by the mainstream and saying that I'm just going to make work that the American mainstream could - should embrace. You need to still make work for your community. You know, create work for your community. And if you are able to get to mainstream, OK. But you should still be making work for your community.

MARTIN: Sam Pollard, the director of the HBO documentary "Black Art: In The Absence Of Light."

Thanks so much for talking with us.

POLLARD: It was a pleasure, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.