The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) recently unveiled its Black American Portraits exhibit, co-curated by Dr. Liz Andrews, Cultural Studies alumna and Executive Director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Arts.
The exhibit features 140 pieces, 61 of which are new acquisitions for the museum, spanning 200 years of Black American portraiture and was designed to complement the showing of The Obama Portraits by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, displayed at LACMA as part of a five-city tour. Dr. Liz Andrews spoke to us about being selected to co-curate this exhibit due to the work she did as a student in the Cultural Studies program on the images and iconography of Barack Obama's 2008 Presidential campaign and subsequent victory: "My background in the imagery of Obama positioned me to collaborate on an exhibition to provide a historic context for the Obama portraits- and LACMA is the only stop on the tour to present a companion show."
A particularly timely exhibit, Black American Portraits was planned in the summer of 2020, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matters protests occurring across the nation. During a time of what Dr. Andrews called a "necessary but highly disturbing assault on our senses" in which we were constantly bombarded by images of death and violence against Black bodies, Black American Portraits was imagined as a counter narrative focusing on images of "joy, beauty, [and] self-actualization." The exhibit is aligned with a long history of Black Americans using art to push back against the demeaning and violent images used to justify the oppression of Black Americans. "Portraiture is a tool of power," Dr. Andrews told us, "that Black Americans have seized over centuries now to present counter images to the dominant culture."
While it would be hard to overstate the cultural significance of this exhibit, it also holds a special significance in the art world, which Dr. Andrews described as historically catering to a "dominant white lens." Dr. Andrews spoke about how she feels that her position as a scholar in the intersection of art history and cultural studies uniquely prepared her to push back against the dominant trends in art and museum curatorship. Specifically, she told us that her time as a student in the Cultural Studies Department prepared her to "emerge as a curator and leader who's thinking about art differently and also about the ways that institutions operate, because everything from the path to curatorial leadership to funding structures have been very exclusionary."
Black American Portraits is currently open to the public at LACMA alongside The Obama Portraits; while the latter will move on to the next stop of their tour on January 2nd, Black American Portraits will remain open through April 17th.
January 10, 2022