Black History Month: the best 2020 exhibitions across the US


Throughout the 1960s, the civil rights movement helped raise awareness of black history, but it wasn’t until 1976 that the White House officially recognized Black History Month.

For its 2020 iteration, it doesn’t only mark the centennial of the 19th amendment, which granted women the vote, but marks the 150th anniversary of the 15th amendment, which granted black men the right to vote.

Aside from the concerts, lectures and film screenings throughout February, here are seven exhibitions to catch during Black History Month across the US.

Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop

Barron Claiborne - Biggie Smalls, King of New York, Wall Street, New York, 1997



Barron Claiborne – Biggie Smalls, King of New York, Wall Street, New York, 1997. Photograph: Barron Claiborne

The new International Center of Photography Museum opened in a $29m space on the Lower East Side in New York on 25 January and included a sprawling group show called Contact High. Until 18 May, this exhibit traces hip-hop from the 1970s onward, from shots of Snoop Dogg lounging on a couch in the 1990s to Public Enemy performing live in New York and Polaroids of Spike Lee. The exhibit includes a 1997 photo of Biggie Smalls wearing a crown by Barron Claiborne, which was taken three days before the rapper was killed in Los Angeles. It’s remembered as the iconic King of New York photo shoot. The actual crown, signed by Biggie Smalls, is shown here alongside the photos.

Per(Sister): Incarcerated Women of Louisiana

Epaul Julien - 13th, 2018



Epaul Julien – 13th, 2018. Photograph: Image Courtesy of Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University

At the Ford Foundation Gallery in New York, a timely exhibition comments on the staggeringly high incarceration rates in Louisiana by highlighting a group of women whose voices are often overlooked. A traveling group show from the Newcomb Art Museum, it focuses on how female incarceration affects families. Opening on 21 February, it includes artwork by Epaul Julien, which depicts a formerly incarcerated woman alongside an American flag and slave ships. The stories of 30 women are on view, including artworks by Allison Beondé and paintings by Amy Elkins.

Mutualities

Cauleen Smith - still from Sojourner, 2018



Cauleen Smith – still from Sojourner, 2018. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist, Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago, and Kate Werble Gallery, New York

The New York artist Cauleen Smith opens an exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art on 17 February, which looks at important women in black history. The artist is showing from her latest series of drawings, Firespitters, alongside two films, Sojourner, which incorporates the wise words of Alice Coltrane and Sojourner Truth, and Pilgrim, which traces the historical sites of black activists, including Rebecca Cox Jackson, a 19th-century preacher. The Black Arts Movement and Afrofuturism have both played a role in influencing Smith. As she once said: “This fundamental idea that people need to see their humanity rendered before them really captivated me when I first began to make moving images.”

Detroit Collects: Selections of African American Art from Private Collections

Charles McGee - Mother and Child, 1965



Charles McGee – Mother and Child, 1965. Photograph: Attorney Jerome Watson and Judge Deborah Geraldine Bledsoe Ford

This exhibition, which runs until 15 March at the Detroit Institute of Arts, brings together artworks from some of the country’s most acclaimed artists, from minimal abstractionist Al Loving, who is showing his 1973 painting Untitled Cube, to works by Alison Saar. Notable pieces include William H Johnson’s 1941 screenprint, Jitterbug II, showing a black couple dancing, and Charles McGee’s charcoal drawing from 1965, Mother and Child. Together, they show the vastness found in historic art collected through private collections over the years. The institute is hosting events all month, from workshops to puppetry and storytelling nights.

Making Mammy: A Caricature of Black Womanhood, 1840–1940

Hattie McDaniel, Olivia de Havilland and Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind.



Hattie McDaniel, Olivia de Havilland and Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind. Photograph: Allstar/MGM

While Gone With the Wind has maintained its place as a much-loved classic, it’s also commonly viewed as a film with major problems, most notably in its “Mammy” character, played by an Oscar-winning Hattie McDaniel. Along with the Jim Crow era came repetitive stereotypes of black domestic servants and at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, an exhibition looks back at this trope. It’s what the co-curators call “considering a century of complex manufacturing of black femininity, power dynamics, and mass-media messaging that still affects black women’s body image, lack of agency, and sense of self”.

Paa Joe: Gates Of No Return

Paa Joe - Cape Coast Castle



Paa Joe – Cape Coast Castle. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist

The Ghanaian artist Paa Joe is known for an unlikely niche: coffins. He has created caskets in the shapes of sneakers, cola bottles and even animals. Now, he’s having an exhibition of wooden sculptures at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Opening on 29 February, the artist is showing architectural models based on castles and forts along the Gold Coast, which were stations for more than 6 million Africans sent west to the Americas and the Caribbean as slaves between the 16th and the 19th centuries.

Tschabalala Self: Out of Body

Installation view of Tschabalala Self: Out of Body, Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 2020



Installation view of Tschabalala Self: Out of Body, Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 2020. Photograph: Photo by Mel Taing

The New York artist Tschabalala Self is known for her paintings of voluptuous women on canvas, created from cut-up jeans, tablecloths, vintage curtains and velvet. This exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston is her largest to date, featuring paintings and sculptures inspired by her upbringing in Harlem, running until 5 July. These portraits of women are loaded with inherent personal power and are more complex than meets the eye. “Not everything calls for a celebration. If everything did then that would mean nothing would,” the artist has said. “So, I try to leave space for unrequited feelings and disappointment. I think people don’t value truth as much as they should. Truth is the only thing people should ask for … truth is liberation.”



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