Once neglected and now honored: Today’s Black American Portraits 

One hundred and forty works: A look at LACMA’s Black American Portraits

By Flora Haberman (9th grade), Sofia Moorefield (11th grade) and Catalina Haberman (11th grade).

Since November of 2021, the Black American portraits exhibit has been open at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. A diverse homage to black artists and the way black Americans have used portraiture to represent their identities, the exhibit offers a large range of pieces, ranging from sculpture, to paintings, to photographs. In this space, black artists are given the spotlight they’ve been deprived of in the past. Visitors will walk into a room with high, white ceilings. Pieces from quilts to sculptures, videos, paintings in acrylic, oil, mysterious materials, realistic, abstract and everything in between are sprawled on every wall. The LILA gazette has chosen three pieces to bring to the spotlight. 

Always here, yesterday and tomorrow. 

Black artists aren’t a new phenomenon, they’ve always existed under the scrutiny of white press and been hidden from public view. In World War II, black artists created propaganda to encourage the participation of everyday people in the war effort. One such artist was Charles Alston, who is considered to be one of the most recognizable black figures in political art during the war and in the 1960s. 

The Civil rights Movement is characterized by speeches, music, and photographs, but its art has long been neglected. Only now is it getting a fraction of the credit it deserves, and hardly enough exposure. This is a blindspot in our history that has seemingly been forgotten, but new black artists remind us that they have always existed, and will certainly continue to exist and amaze. 

Behind the Myth of Benevolence by Titus Kaphar, by Flora Haberman (9th grade)

Born in Kalamazoo Michigan in 1976, Titus Kaphar is the American contemporary painter who painted Behind the Myth of Benevolence. As both a painter and sculptor, with his art, Kaphar seeks to show history’s relevance today as not just a thing of the past, but also as an important aspect that is meant to bring awareness to issues that continue to prevail in present times. In this captivating painting, Thomas Jefferson seems to melt off the canvas, allowing a black woman to peer out cautiously from where she used to be hidden in his shadow. Not only is the creative artistry shown in this piece gorgeous, the symbolism and the historical relevance behind its meaning also gives the work a lot of depth.

Christine Y. Kim, a curator of contemporary art at LACMA explained that  Kaphar’s work “exposes, complicates and disrupts the notion, narrative and positionality of the so-called ‘benevolent’ founding father, Thomas Jefferson, our third president and author of the Declaration of Independence which articulated ‘all men are created equal with an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ who owned more than 600 human beings.” The woman depicted in the painting is actually one of Jefferson’s slaves who mothered six of his children. Knowing the background that surrounds the painting gives it, of course, a clearer, darker meaning. Though it should be noted that even when it is first observed by a fresh mind with no knowledge of its story, Kaphar’s intended message is still received. Our founding fathers, though bringing to life an independent nation, evidently lacked a critical component to their character: benevolence. 

Porgy and Bess, embracing, 2013 by Kara Walker, by Catalina Haberman (11th grade)

At 52 years old, Kara Walker has become one of the most recognized African American contemporary artists. She gained global attention when she first began experimenting with paper silhouettes, using them to convey strong messages relating to struggles faced by African Americans since the beginning of time. What makes these silhouettes so noteworthy and significant is the way in which they subtly depict the complexities of subjegation, sexuality, and violence; issues that ultimately link to the ongoing “psychological injury” caused by slavery’s legacy. Spectators are therefore able to view a creative representation of accurate historical events and even derive their own interpretations. The piece above, hung on the first wall to your right when walking into LACMA’s exhibition, portrays two black lovers embracing amid a passionate affair. Expressing issues relating to race, poverty, drugs, and violence, it is fair to say the piece represents the stereotypes surrounding African American lifestyle. 

“I think Porgy and Bess lives in a murky place in popular culture and personal reflection,” Walker says. “Music softens the lines, obscures the racism in the text until it looks very much like what it is—a folk tale of its age.” – Walker 

Essence and Jihaari by Koshin Finley 2020, by Sofia Moorefield (11th grade)

Koshin Finley is an American contemporary artist based in Los Angeles who combines music, poetry, and painting to capture his subjects in their most honest and sometimes vulnerable form; “fully present in their own stories, not ones created for them”. The artwork he creates is extremely personal– telling the narratives of his closest friends, family and peers. He begins his paintings by using photographs as a template for his oil-based portraits, and depicts his subjects in black and white to make the light and shadows distinctive and indisputable. These pieces are in defiance of the dark history that surrounds African Americans’ power to decide their own fate; dating back to slavery, when their lives belonged to the white man. In this particular painting, titled ‘Essence and Jihaari’, Koshin Finley depicts a couple in charge of their own lives, writing their own stories. They look back at the viewer confidently and in an embrace, together. Defiant and unquestioning. This is what the black-american experience ought to be; one of liberty, action, and love.  

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