This year, Black History Month has taken on an even more poignant meaning, but how did we start to celebrate it?
by Mickey Santana
In the late summer of 1915, Carter G. Woodson took a trip to Philadelphia. The renowned Harvard historian was one of the thousands of African Americans who descended upon the city to commemorate 50 years since the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery in the United States. Amidst the cheer and revelry, Woodson recognized that Black history was indeed American history. Together with minister Jesse E. Moorland, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) was founded – and Black History Month, as we know it, was born.
Celebrating in February didn’t come by accident. Two of the most prominent figures in Black history – Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln were both born in this month. After the first Negro History Week in 1926, schools and communities continued to grow the movement, celebrating the achievements and contributions of African Americans to society. By 1976, February was officially proclaimed Black History Month by President Gerald Ford.
This year, Black History Month has taken on an even more poignant meaning. As the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer have shown, the fight for racial and economic equality remains a continuous and arduous battle. Just over 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Black Americans continue to be face discrimination and suffer from unequal access to employment, health care, financial assistance, and opportunities. Despite these continued hardships placed upon these communities, Black Americans have been foundational in the creation and continuous development of art and culture across the globe.
Black artists have penetrated almost every sector of the art world, bringing prominence to the lived Black experience. From America’s earliest days, African Americans made their creative mark through skilled craftsmanship, woodwork, and pottery. Artists like Patrick H. Reason, one of the earliest African American engravers and lithographers, used his art to depict the brutality faced by African American slaves and laborers.
Through the 19th century, African American artists continued to gain international prominence, most especially after the Civil War, when more Black artists were welcomed into museums. Acclaimed painters like Henry Ossawa Tanner and Robert S. Duncanson were among the few Black artists that trained in Europe, often financed by wealthy patrons. Duncanson’s work, in particular, has been brought back to the fore, with his 1859 painting “Landscape with Rainbow” having been chosen as the Inaugural Painting for President Joe Biden. A reflection of the classical style of the era, the painting represents an idyllic, peaceful country scene. However, at the time of its creation, a Civil War was brewing with heightened anti-black racism, prompting Duncanson himself to move his family from Cincinnati to Canada. Nevertheless, the painting and the rainbow, in particular, remain “a poignant reminder that on the brink of dissolution, [Duncanson] held out hope for the future” writes the Los Angeles Times. Revisiting Duncanson’s work amidst the backdrop of today’s socio-political climate highlights both the hope for change and the continued fight for equality.
Contemporary Black artists have addressed the challenges of the times more head-on. Visionaries like Jean-Michel Basquiat used his neo-expressionist style combined with graffiti and street art techniques to critique capitalism, greed, and the structures of racial oppression that plagued the late 20th century. Other artists like Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald have been heralded for their groundbreaking portraits that have provided even deeper insight into the African American experience – most notably having been commissioned for the Obama portraits at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
For the past 30 years, Agora Gallery has been a proud advocate for Black artists and art about the Black experience. Among them is Alan Lacke Cairo, a rising contemporary artist whose work uses abstraction and symmetry to contemplate his passions for science, math, and the cosmos. Whether through geometric lines or a complex pattern of dots and spots, Lacke’s work embodies the vibrancy of his Cuban heritage and personal experience.
Similarly, David Morrison channels his personal story into his art. A painter from a young age, Morrison quickly fell in love with the act and idea of creating something original, something that could never be repeated or duplicated. Echoes of Basquiat’s neo-expressionist ethos can be seen in Morrison’s rich brushstrokes – at once spontaneous and deeply deliberate. Through an almost grotesque style of portraiture, Morrison captures emotions previously untouched by movements past, rendering these invented characters into reflections of the self and of society at large.
The essence of Black History month extends past the visual and is deeply rooted in the individual communities across the country. Rebecca Stenn’s work, previously on display at the gallery’s Lyrical Narratives and Abstraction exhibition, beautifully captures the vitality of New York City youth.
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A trained dancer, Stenn views visual art as an extension of the movement and fluidity found in dance. She continues to inspire these passions in children with the I Have A Dream Foundation, providing access to dance and arts programs and professional mentorship. Stenn’s adept skill at portraiture has resulted in a moving collection featuring children she has worked with at the foundation. Though she is not Black herself, her work is soulful and heartfelt, overlaying newspaper clippings of the BLM protests onto the clothes of her subjects. The result is a brilliant display of allyship and unique addition to the larger presence of Black culture and subjects in the world of art.
As we continue to explore the achievements and contributions Black artists have made in American culture, we must remain aware of the inequalities they continue to face. There are plenty of ways to encourage and support Black artists, especially through the pandemic, and we at Agora Gallery remain committed and are excited to help foster a new generation of Black creators – one canvas, sculpture, or photograph at a time.
Mickey Santana is a recent Media and Communications graduate from NYU with a passion for visual arts and marketing. Growing up between Manila and Hong Kong, he has a love for travel and storytelling, expressing this cross-cultural upbringing through his art, his work as a Social Media Intern for the Gallery, and various other artistic projects, including self-published, original music