Being simultaneously seen and not seen has been a struggle for African Americans throughout America’s history, and it has been no different for Black art. When it comes to the history of Black art, David Driskell’s name must not go unrecognized.
In HBO’s documentary “Black Art: In the Absence of Light,” inspired by Driskell’s 1976 exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” not only does it revisit the past but it looks toward the future in its review of today’s most prominent Black artists.
HBO delivers an informative yet entertaining documentary by telling a story and a history of a subject that usually goes untold. The director, Sam Pollard, did an exceptional job of telling a complex and deep history without disconnecting from the audience. Pollard is able to successfully inform and teach without making the viewer feel like they need outside knowledge to understand and connect with what is being said.
Pollard intertwines the stories of the past with their modern contemporaries. With each new style of art, he introduced a unique perspective of Black culture and the art world. As he continued to introduce new artists, he was painting a larger picture of himself and of what he believed to be important to the Black community as a whole. His interpretation of the history of Black art is not only important but beautiful.
Although some art can be challenging to decipher, the title of the film is not left up to interpretation. Being “in the absence of light” is heavily symbolic and important to the message of this documentary. It references the long history of Black artists not receiving the recognition and acknowledgment they deserve. In this case, it refers to the great works portrayed by Black artists and their ability to create such amazing art in the absence of light.
It is important to acknowledge that the presence of light or attention one gets from others should not keep Black American men and women from continuing to create, inspire and tear down walls. This documentary should inspire others to be creative even when the light is off. Only when the absence of light determines and defines the capability of others does the true decimation of a culture endure. The art that has been curated for centuries must continue to be collected, exhibited and performed, or there will be a real absence of light in the art community and America’s culture as a whole.
The lives portrayed in the documentary are inspiring, and the free expression of Black visual art is remarkable. All the artists who were showcased in the documentary would not have become who they are today if they were not willing to create art without a spotlight. Each of them was in control of their ideas, and their creativity was not dependent on light nor darkness.
The documentary states that there is a desire for Black artists to express themselves and for others to see the way they choose to express their ideas and creativity. As the documentary comes to an end, Driskell explains that Black visual art can be further appreciated and encouraged through enlightenment and education. Although a lot of work has been done for the representation of Back art, there is still much to be done before we reach Martin Luther King Jr.’s “promised land.”
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