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‘In the Absence of Light’ shows history of Black art in America

Maddison Behringer / THE GATEPOST

By Jack McLaughlin

Arts & Features Editor

The 2021 documentary “A Black Art: In the Absence of Light” was screened in the Center for Inclusive Excellence (CIE) as part of the University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day event series Jan. 23. 

Tim McDonald, art professor, began the screening by giving an introduction to the film. His address focused on the marginalization of Black art, saying that “it shows just how marginalized things are, things you probably have never heard of.” 

He explained how when he was learning art history, the textbook he had did not show much representation for African American art and how professors at FSU like Erika Schneider are working to rectify that. 

“There were no African American artists, no indigenous artists in it, and we have art historians like Dr. Schneider working diligently trying to change that,” he said. 

The beginning of the documentary focused on the 1976 art exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art.” This exhibit was the first of its kind in the United States, offering a look at African American artwork that was curated by Black artist David C. Driskell. 

“Two Centuries of Black American Art” was described in the documentary as a massive success. One of the interviews about the success said that the introduction to it in Atlanta saw an attendance that no other exhibit had seen in the city before. 

The documentary continued by showcasing African American representation in the arts, ranging from artists and art collectors. 

The collector they focused on was Kasseem Dean, known professionally as the musician Swizz Beatz. He has a collection of art, called the Dean Collection, that is made up of African American art which he also showcases on his social media platforms. 

Dean explained that art galleries used to not take him seriously, but he did not let that deter him and was able to amass a large collection of African American art. 

In the documentary, Dean talked about the benefit of showcasing the artists behind the work he was interested in, as it would give the artist enough exposure to be taken more seriously by art galleries. 

A section of the documentary featured Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, who did the presidential portraits for Barack Obama and Michelle Obama respectively. 

Wiley talked about his process of creating his portrait and his desire to be different from contemporary art and the presidential portraits that have come before his. 

He also emphasized how he tried focusing on Obama not as a president with power, but as a person with importance on their physical presence. 

Sherald’s take on Michelle Obama’s portrait came from wanting to differentiate how Michelle presented herself to the world and find something more private. 

Her portrait of Obama cemented herself as a household name and became her breakthrough moment as an artist. 

Speaking on the documentary, McDonald said the part that resonated with him the most was the ending, where artist Theaster Gates talked about making art “in the absence of light.”

“All the artists in the film began making their work when no one was looking, when no one cared to look, when no one knew that there might be something to look at,” he said. 

“That speaks to the level of commitment necessary to be an artist.”

CIE Director Jerome Burke spoke on the significance of Barack Obama’s portrait, and its significance in the documentary.

“It was extremely powerful to witness the first Black president being painted by a Black artist. Understanding the struggles of the Black community, it felt like a full-circle moment - one of those things that, as a Black man, is extremely inspiring,” he said. 

McDonald said he hopes that attendees watching the documentary take away the significance art history has when it comes to seeing yourself represented in it. 

“Everyone needs to see themselves reflected in it, the good and the bad. Art helps to provide meaning, and perhaps more importantly, the questions guide one in the search for that meaning,” he said. 

Burke explained that he wants those who watched the documentary to understand that “art is a catalyst for change. I also hope it creates ongoing dialogues around representation.”

McDonald said his main takeaway from the documentary was how the artists’ work is built on a foundation of love for the craft - “the love of what the late Congressman John Lewis called the beloved community.”

“That love, as he saw it, represented in the Rev. Dr. King, is what called the congressman to the Civil Rights movement and to public service, and, I think, what is the ground on which these artists build their practice.”

Burke said his takeaway from the documentary was the resilience that these artists had in the face of marginalization and rejection. 

“The documentary was able to highlight the stories of these artists who, despite their challenges, continued to create meaningful and impactful art. It underscores the importance of acknowledging and valuing diverse perspectives in the art world, promoting a deeper understanding of the intersectionality of race, identity, and artistic expression,” he said. 

McDonald said that the documentary combined with his own perspective on the world and history is a hope that there will be more of an awareness toward the systemic oppression that has existed since the beginning of this country. 

He explained further that he hopes this will “help to expose more people to work that has been going on for centuries, alongside and equal to the works of art that we revere and house in our most admired institutions. And that artists, once on the margins, move to the center and get paid.”

Burke talked about why there exists a distinction for Black art, explaining that “Black artists were not recognized or provided the opportunity to create and display their works.”

He said that his perspective on how Black art is perceived hasn’t changed since watching the documentary. “I have always known that Black artists are powerful and have been producing amazing work. It is refreshing to witness the rest of the world now appreciating and celebrating Black artists.”

Burke also spoke about the importance of representing Black artists, especially to an audience that may not be completely familiar with them. He said, “Highlighting Black artists ensures that diverse perspectives and experiences are represented in the art world.

“Showcasing Black artists initiates important conversations about race, identity, and representation. It encourages viewers to engage in thoughtful discussions about the role of art in reflecting and shaping societal narratives,” he said.

When asked, McDonald emphasized the importance of representation when it comes to bringing awareness to Black art. 

“I think it comes to an understanding of representation - who is being represented, what is being represented, how is it being represented, what is the context with which the representation is happening, and who is doing the representing.” 


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