First published in 1997, Black Art: A Cultural History by art historian Richard J. Powell, a comprehensive survey of Black and African diasporan visual culture in the 20th century, has since been recognized as an indispensable work on African American art history.
This month, Thames & Hudson will publish a revised and expanded third edition (a second edition was released in 2002) that adds Powell’s discussion of Black art and artists over the last 20 years. In addition to painting, sculpture, and installation works, in this new edition Powell examines the graphic arts, photography, hip-hop, digital technologies, and Afrocentric videos and films; in addition to a new generation of African American artists making their mark on the global stage of the contemporary gallery art world.
Powell is the John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art and Art History at Duke University. He is the author of a number of books on Black art, among them, Going There: Black Visual Satire; and Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson. Publishers Weekly talked with Powell about what Black art looks like in the 21st Century.
Publishers Weekly: How did this book evolve, from the first edition to the third?
Richard J. Powell: I was doing a fellowship at Harvard in the 1990’s. And Whitney Chadwick, a very renowned scholar who has done a major book on women and modern art, pulled me aside one day, and said, I've been in conversation with Thames & Hudson in London about a book that might focus on Black art, and would you be interested in doing that? I said, I'd be delighted. And she put me in touch with Nikkos Stangos, an amazing art editor who had worked for Penguin Books in London, and with Thames and Hudson [an independent U.K. publisher of art and illustrated books] for their World of Art series.
I published the first edition, which was radical for Thames & Hudson, because they had never done anything related to Black art before. And then the second edition was done. We’ve been operating with those two editions for a number of years. But then I got a call from Roger Thorp, who's with the London office, and he said, we really do need to update this. A lot of cultural, political and artistic things have happened in the past twenty years. So I got the opportunity to update it.
Who are some of the new artists in this new revised edition?
Working on the third edition, it dawned on me that this is the moment when photography takes its own place in the contemporary art world. So I included Hank Willis Thomas, and his manipulation of existing imagery. I also included Sondra Perry, a brilliant filmmaker, video and conceptual artist, and an interesting artist from Canada, Kapwani Kiwanga, who, for the past maybe ten, fifteen years or so, has been doing these Afrofuturist, quasi mock lectures that include imagery related to [the late Jazz musician] Sun Ra. And there’s photographer Deana Lawson’s, Garden, Gehenna, DR Congo from 2015, with a Congolese couple laying nude in a surreal, green expanse all around them. It's kind of about race, and not about race at the same time. It's a deeper, more playful interrogation of blackness.
You write in the book that Black art is “American-in-origin, African-in-design and transatlantic-in-praxis.” Can you tell us about the diasporic nature of the idiom?
In the nineties, people were doing exciting things in London. I was working with Thames and Hudson there and hanging out with people such as installation artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien, and Sonia Boyce, [an Afro-Carribean multi-disciplinary artist]. And having studied with historian Robert Ferris Thompson [noted for studying African and Afro-Atlantic art] at Yale in the 1980s, I'd already been attuned to thinking about Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica and Brazil, as sites of African American art beyond the specificities of Afro-U.S. [geography].
Is Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012), a renowned Howard University-educated painter and sculptor who lived and worked in Mexico, an appropriate representative of the global vitality of Black art?
Yes. She is truly a world citizen, and an incredibly important artist. The first image from her in the book is Negro es Bella II [a lithographic tribute to the Black Power movement]. It’s a delightful piece. What I love about it are the heads that she's drawn beautifully that are both Black, and could possibly be Native American or Mexican. And then she's got these wonderful “Black is Beautiful” buttons with the Panther on it. Somebody's got to do a biography on that woman!
The book also examines Black film in relation to Black gallery art.
This is a book that, from the outset, says cinema matters! I give props to video artist Arthur Jafa in the book, because he has been on the ground working consistently. I talk about director Julie Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust, and his beautiful cinematography. I talk about Ernie Dickerson's amazing work as a cinematographer for Spike Lee, and then on his filmwork on the 1990 film Ava and Gabriel, una historia di amor.
In Daughters of the Dust, you can tell that Julie Dash is looking at Doris Ulmann’s photography, and she knew Thompson's book, Flash of the Spirit, inside and out. Spike Lee is definitely a visual person. In fact, Lee’s 2000 film Bamboozled really owes a lot of its cutting-edge imagery to artist Michael Ray Charles. And I must acknowledge Beyonce! Talk about projects that mine Black visual culture: Lemonade and Black is King. I was stunned. And director Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther was a similar project, in terms of designer Ruthie Carter's Incredible costumes and [architectural designs].
You received your Ph.D., and M. Phil. in the History of Art, and an MA in Afro-American Studies from Yale University. And you earned an M.F.A. in Printmaking from Howard University, and a B.A. in Art from Morehouse College in 1977 and 1975. How did attending two HBCU’s help you become an art scholar?
I spent lots of time looking at the Atlanta University’s fantastic collections. And at Howard, I spent lots of wonderful moments with people like painter Lois Mailou Jones, and the printmaker James Lesesne Wells, sculptor Ed Love and Jeff Donaldson [painter and chair of the Howard University school of art in the 1970s]. So, the irony here is that by the time I got to Yale in 1980, I had read a good body of African American and African literature, I had done theater at Spelman, and I was in a play with Samuel L. Jackson!
So when I'm hanging out with folks like Henry Louis “Skip” Gates and all the [scholarly] luminaries at Yale, I had already got a really good foundation in the culture. And all I needed was to take it to the next step. So I always celebrate and give praise to historically Black institutions, because I wouldn't be who I am, or doing what I'm doing, had it not been for them.