November Exhibitions: 12 Museums Shows Featuring African American Artists Betye Saar, Simone Leigh, Dawoud Bey, Charles White, Faith Ringgold, Kehinde Wiley & More
OPENING THIS MONTH, art museums across the United States are presenting the vision and works of a broad array of Black artists—historic figures, mid-career practitioners, and rising talents. Among them are important women artists including Simone Leigh, Betye Saar, Faith Ringgold, Billie Zangewa, Grace Wales Bonner, and Elizabeth Talford Scott (1916-2011). Traveling exhibitions featuring Leigh, Ringgold, Stephen Burks, and Kehinde Wiley are bringing the artist’s works to new audiences. Highlights also include “Unnamed Figures: Black Presence and Absence in the Early American North” at the America Folk Art Museum in New York City and “Elegy,” showcasing photographs by Dawoud Bey at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Va. A selection of November exhibitions, listed in the order of their opening dates, follows:
The singular practice of Simone Leigh centers Black feminist thought and the experiences of Black women. Her sculptures combine the female figure, domestic vessels, and African architectural forms. In 2022, Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Leigh was the first Black woman to represent the United States with a solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale. Nine selections from the landmark Venice presentation are on view in this survey, along with works from throughout Leigh’s career, including three new sculptures shown publicly for the first time at the Hirshhorn. Nearly 30 clay, bronze, and video works dating from 2001-04 to 2023 are featured.
A master draftsman, Charles White is one of the most significant and influential African American artists of the 20th century. His powerful and evocative images capture the strength, dignity, and beauty of Black people. The exhibition presents nearly 50 drawings, paintings, and prints drawn from the Primas Family Collection. The selection includes two large drawings from White’s J’Accuse series and a group of 12 oil-wash illustrations shown publicly for the first time. Commissioned by Johnson Publishing Company, White created the illustrations for “The Shaping of Black America” (1975), the landmark book authored by Ebony editor Lerone Bennett Jr.
“Drifting Toward Twilight” is an immersive, room-sized installation commissioned by The Huntington. The walls are ocean blue and feature phases of the moon and a poem by Betye Saar. At its center is a site-specific work, a 17-foot-long vintage wooden canoe Saar has made her own with wood chairs evoking “passengers,” antlers in birdcages, and other found objects, along with natural materials from the museum’s more than 200-acre grounds. Saar visited the The Huntington with her mother and aunt in the 1930s and was particularly intrigued by the gardens and draws connections between the childhood visits and the important role of nature in her work throughout her career. Curator Yinshi Lerman-Tan organized the presentation with Sóla Saar Agustsson, Saar’s granddaughter and The Huntington’s special programs and digitization assistant. The installation will remain on view for two years and become a part of the museum’s permanent collection.
“Saar’s work evokes mysticism and the occult, as well as the human relationship to nature and the cosmos. An immersive, watery space containing a canoe that is part vessel and part dreamscape, the installation gestures to ancestral and mythological journeys, and the constant cycles of the natural world.” — Curator Yinshi Lerman-Tan
The vibrant mixed-media works of storied quilt artist Elizabeth Talford Scott (1916-2011) embody intergenerational family histories and a longstanding commitment to innovative craft work. Talford Scott’s creations represent the legacy of her ancestors, craftspeople who persisted through slavery, sharecropping, migration, and segregation in South Carolina, and the talent and artistic commitment inherited by her daughter, Baltimore bead artist and sculptor Joyce J. Scott. Presenting 20 fiber works incorporating beads, buttons, shells, bones, stones, sequins, and an array of unconventional objects, the exhibition builds on an inaugural presentation organized 25 years ago by the Exhibition Development Seminar (EDS) at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. The historic retrospective inspired the current exhibition of Talford Scott, which is guest-curated by MICA Curator-in-Residence Emeritus George Ciscle with input from a new generation of EDS students.
This exhibition presents a rare look at African American representation in the U.S. North, revealing the complexities of race in New England and the Mid-Atlantic from the late 17th to early 19th centuries. Described as “a corrective to histories that define slavery and anti-Black racism as a largely Southern issue,” the show presents about 125 early American works from more than three dozen institutions and private collections, spanning paintings, works on paper, photographs, needlework, and other vernacular forms.
Conceptual artist Charles Gaines focuses on language, content, and theory. Employing systems-based methodologies, he translates documents and images into numerical forms, musical notations, and other coded structures. This exhibition presents more than 70 works—across electronics, wood, acrylic and photographs—from the second half of his career, dating from 1992 to the present. Over the past two decades, the Los Angeles artist has focused more acutely on issues of race, identity, and politics. The works on view draw a range of sources, including the Black Panther Party manifesto and texts by Frantz Fanon and Franz Kafka. Highlights include “Greenhouse” (2003–2023), a monumental installation exploring climate change that Gaines is recreating for the first time in 20 years.
BILLIE ZANGEWA, “Sea of Love,” 2022 (Hand-stitched silk collage 113 x 136 cm / 44 1/2 x 53 9/16 inches). | Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London
Billie Zangewa makes hand-sewn, textile “paintings”—detailed urban landscapes, domestic scenes, and portraits composed with pieces of raw silk. Malawi-born, Johannesburg-based Zangewa has become known her visual explorations of women’s lives. For this exhibition she is presenting new works that expand her focus, exploring the human condition, the interconnectivity of all living things, and the sociopolitical challenges facing contemporary society. The works also introduce antique beveled mirrors for the first time, adding a reflective element to the organic forms of her silk creations.
This presentation is Faith Ringgold’s first solo exhibition in Chicago. For more than six decades, Ringgold has been at the forefront of artistic expression, shedding light on race and political issues in the museum world and American society at large; advocating for the representation, collective histories, and experiences of women often through her own biography, and the relevance of craft mediums in fine art. The most comprehensive showcase of her work to date, “American People” features paintings from the artist’s American People and Black Light series, celebrated story quilts, soft sculptures, and performance objects. The exhibition also includes ephemera documenting Ringgold’s activism and works from MCA’s collection by other artists who are influenced by Ringgold or address related themes in their work.
Chicago photographer Dawoud Bey has gained international regard for his Harlem street scenes and portrait series that delve into a variety of societal issues and historic events. Over his five-decade career, Bey has worked primarily in black and white. In recent years, he has focused on landscape images exploring Underground Railroad sites, evoking the harrowing journey of African Americans seeking freedom from enslavement. Organized by Valerie Cassel Oliver, “Dawoud Bey: Elegy” presents 42 photographs and two video installations. Three bodies of work are on display. Night Coming Tenderly considers the Underground Railroad experience in Ohio and In This Here Place pictures the plantations of Louisiana. The most recent series, Stony the Road, was commissioned by VMFA and captures images of the historic Richmond trail “where Africans arrived in bondage to an unknown land and were walked into enslavement.”
“These histories are no longer visible. We, in fact, cannot photograph or make cinematic work about this history. My work deals with trying to reimagine the sites of this history. I apply a set of conceptual, formal, optical and material strategies to the visualization of these spaces that activate the imagination around these particular landscapes that still have deep meaning.” — Dawoud Bey
British fashion designer Grace Wales Bonner’s practice is based on rigorous cultural research. She is inspired by Black history and literature, often collaborates with visual artists, and curated a major exhibition at Serpentine Galleries in London in 2019. Her latest curatorial project is the result of years exploring the Museum of Modern Art’s collection. According to Bonner’s concept of spirit movers, the exhibition will showcase works that “evoke multiple histories, inspire contemplation, and conjure new connections between people and places.” About 50 works will be on view, all drawn from MoMA’s collection, by a slate of inter-generational artists including Terry Adkins, Anthony Barboza, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Moustapha Dimé, Agnes Martin, Man Ray, Betye Saar, and David Hammons.
From left: Stephen Burks with “The Ancestors (Shelter in Place project),” 2021 (acrylic, epoxy resin, enamel, polystyrene foam, and clay-coated paper). | Designed by Stephen Burks (American, born 1969), manufactured by Stephen Burks Man Made, New York, Established 1997. Collection of the designer. Photo by Caroline Tompkins; “Traveler Indoor Armchair with Hood,” 2014 (epoxy-lacquered steel, leather cords, leather upholstery, and plume-feather fill). | Designed by Stephen Burks (American, born 1969), Made for Roche Bobois (France, established 1960). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Roche Bobois, 2016. Photo Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art
The first African American to win the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for Product Design (2015), Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Stephen Burks has collaborated with a spectrum of artisans and industrial designers making furniture, lighting products, crafts and other objects. This exhibition presents a series of international projects made over the past 10 years and features Shelter in Place, a concept project that “explores new ideas regarding our relationship with our homes, especially in the wake of a global pandemic, and invites active participation from visitors.”
Kehinde Wiley’s latest museum exhibition features portraits of fallen figures, speaking to police murder, systemic violence, and the fraught circumstances under which Black people are made visible. The new body of work expands upon a series he made 15 years ago. Inspired by Hans Holbein the Younger’s “The Dead Christ in the Tomb” (1521–1522), Down (2008) is a series of large-scale portraits of young Black men lying in repose. “Archeology of Silence” features 25 new paintings and sculpture with Wiley’s incredibly life-like male and female figures taking on monumental symbolism. CT
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