In the wake of the assassinations and civil unrest that roiled the United States in 1968, artists responded like everyone else: with grief, anger, and a vow to change things for the better. African-American artists in Harlem — the New York neighborhood that had long been an epicenter of African-American life — went even farther. They opened an art space called The Studio Museum in Harlem that would be of the people, by the people, and for the people of Harlem and their advocates. The museum’s focus would be painters, sculptors, and other artists who were mostly ignored by New York’s major galleries and institutions.
Did they succeed? San Francisco art-goers can judge for themselves with “Black Refractions: Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem,” which opened last week on the second and third floors of the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD). More than 60 works of every genre, from the 1930s to the present, are on display. Big current names are represented, including Obama portraitist Kehinde Wiley, Turner Prize-winning painter Chris Ofili, and MacArthur “Genius” grant winners Dawoud Bey, Carrie Mae Weems, Mark Bradford, and Njideka Akunyili Crosby, a Nigerian native who lives in Los Angeles.
Crosby’s painting Nwantinti is an intricate tableaux of a cozying couple on a bed where the bed’s fabric, the couple’s clothing, and the walls are covered in scenes of Nigerians in love, laughing, or posing — among them Nigerian singer Nelly Uchendu, whose Love Nwantinti song was a big Nigerian hit in the 1970s. Pop culture and popular expectations about love and continuity tangle in the alluring patterns and colors that are Nwantinti. On a nearby MoAD wall is another standout painting: Noah Davis’ Black Wall Street, which revisits the white, racist riots of 1921 that devastated the Black business district of Tulsa, Okla., and murdered scores of people. Davis, who died in 2015 at age 32, mourns the tragedy with a kind of shocking stillness that is both a lament and an ode to survival.
One year after The Studio Museum in Harlem opened, Barkley Hendricks painted Lawdy Mama, using gold leaf to surround his image of his young, Afroed niece, whose countenance resembled that of Angela Davis. Lawdy Mama combined Hendricks’ admiration of European Renaissance paintings and Byzantine iconography, which he took in during his early travels across Europe, and his admiration of everyday culture. The curved frame of the painting matches the curved Afro and his niece’s curved face — a symmetry of quasi-halos that mirrors the symmetry and halos of famous religious paintings — but his niece’s oddly stoic expression and her folded arms are more suggestive of the Black Power movement that was unfolding as Hendricks made Lawdy Mama. Before his death in 2017, Hendricks said many times that Lawdy Mama and his other subjects might be deemed political but that politics wasn’t his forte or his focus. It was the art itself that was important. (One of Hendricks’ 1974 paintings, Brenda P, sold at auction last year for $2.1 million, while another, Dancer, sold for $2 million.)
The Studio Museum in Harlem’s initial exhibit, “Electronic Refractions II,” was seemingly nonpolitical and featured the abstract art of sculptor and light artist Tom Lloyd, whose 1968 hexagonal work Moussakoo is in “Black Refractions: Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem.” In fact, Lloyd’s exhibit inspired the title of the museum’s touring exhibit, which travels to five more U.S. venues after MoAD, but Lloyd isn’t as known today as he was in 1968, when he was exhibiting regularly. After The Studio Museum in Harlem opened its doors, The New York Times interviewed Lloyd and the museum’s first director, Charles Inniss, and Lloyd said, “There are probably about 100 Black artists in the city who’re fantastic. But it seems most of them have been deliberately excluded from gallery and museum shows. Even Blacks haven’t had a chance to see their works.”
The Studio Museum in Harlem helped alter that dynamic. As Lloyd, Hendricks, and others pushed for greater acceptance, they argued that “Black art” shouldn’t be reduced to a handful of artists or even a handful of art forms. “Black Refractions,” which is a collaboration with the American Federation of Arts, is an entry point into one museum’s history and collection. So much has changed since 1968, and even MoAD’s beginnings in 2005 were an extension of the work that The Studio Museum in Harlem started 50 years ago.
“Black Refractions: Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem,” through April 14, at the Museum of the African Diaspora, 685 Mission St. $5-$10, 415-358-7200, moadsf.org.