“I saw the need to build cultural awareness by helping to revise and redefine American art,” says the renowned professor, artist, and curator David Driskell in Black Art: In the Absence of Light. His words echo throughout the new HBO documentary—which was directed by Sam Pollard, with executive producers Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Jacqueline Glover—that uncovers the rich and underappreciated lineage of Black art.
Structured chronologically, the feature-length film was released earlier this month and stems from Driskell’s revolutionary exhibition Two Centuries of Black American Art, which opened in 1979 at LACMA and surveyed more than 200 works dating back to 1750 from 63 artists. The formative show went on to major museums in Dallas, Atlanta, and Brooklyn, breaking attendance records despite its unenthusiastic response from some critics and institutions, including two in Chicago and Detroit that rejected its visit entirely.
Two Centuries of Black American Art, though, had a widespread and profound impact, which the documentary explores through interviews with artists working today. Many conversations begin with Driskell, who died last April from the coronavirus before Black Art‘s release. The film probes a vast archive from Chicago artists like Kerry James Marshall (previously) and Theaster Gates (previously), alongside Amy Sherald (previously), Kehinde Wiley (previously), and Jordan Casteel, among others.
Through a multi-generational lens, the documentary examines the nuanced effects of these figures’ contributions to the broader field of contemporary American art as it shares footage of their practices and reactions to their works. For example, Fred Wilson unveils what’s hidden within museum collections, while Wiley and Sherald both comment on the profound experience of painting the Obamas’ official portraits. Additional insights from Studio Museum director and chief curator Thelma Golden, who also is a consulting producer, are woven throughout the film.
Beyond galleries and museums, much of Black Art centers on the value of representation and unearthing a narrative that’s been obscured or outright dismissed. In particular, it considers the role of collectives like Sprial, which was founded in 1963 by Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis in order to highlight the work generated by Black artists in the Civil Rights Movement. While Sprial drew attention to otherwise ignored projects, it was largely dominated by men, a problem Faith Ringgold speaks to as she describes being rejected from the group. Sprial only admitted one woman, Emma Amos.
The final segment focuses on the importance of collectors investing in Black artists, in addition to the long history of spaces like Studio Museum and historically Black colleges and universities. These institutions continue to foster communities that honor the legacy of those who’ve come before while backing those forging new ground, prompting questions like this one from Theaster Gates: “We are part of a continued renaissance—it’s been happening. What I’m most excited about is, do we have the capacity to be great makers in the absence of light?”
Black Art is streaming on HBO Max through March 17. Educators also can download a coinciding curriculum with research tools and discussion prompts, in addition to another filled with activities designed to spur creativity.