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Black Artists Reframe The Black Figure At London’s National Portrait Gallery

UNITED KINGDOM: ‘The Time is Always Now’ exhibit brings together 22 artists of African descent.

The artists, mostly British and from the US, depict their subjects as historical figures, as reflections of world events, and as contemporary individuals living their lives.

It’s taken five years to put this show together.

The curator, Ekow Eshun believes the exhibition comes at the right time.

“We’re in a period right now where Black artists are working at a level of extraordinary proficiency and are being celebrated and recognised internationally at a level we’ve never seen in history before,” he said.

“The show is partly about marking this moment, but it’s also about looking further than this, looking through the eyes of the artists and the subjects in their work.” 

“It’s also an invitation into inquiry. An invitation into what does Black experience, Black lived experience, Black identity and being, and presence, and history. What does this look like?”

Fresh lens

Historical events are loudly reflected in the exhibition, but through a fresh lens.

A painting entitled Nanny of the ‘Maroons’ Fifth Act of Mercy by Kimathi Donkor depicts queen Nanny, an 18th-century leader of the Jamaican Maroons.

Artist Kimathi Donkor’s own wife modelled for these artworks, blending Black history with contemporary people.

“I’ve got two paintings here on display at the National Portrait Gallery today. One of them is called Harriet Tubman en route to Canada, and the other one is called Nanny of the Maroons Fifth Act of Mercy, he says.

“Essentially, they’re portrayals of two historic Black women. One of them, Nanny of the Maroons from the 18th century Jamaica and Harriet Tubman from 19th century America. And both of them were activists, actually military commanders in the struggle against slavery,” explains Donkor.

He believes Black perspectives are being given more prominence – but there is still a long way to go.

Work like a ‘As Sound Turns to Noise’, by Thomas J. Price show a modern reinterpretation of classical sculpture, where a Black figure is the focus.

In western art, white Western artists have dominated how Black people are represented, often in subservient roles or as ‘curiosities’.

“This reframing, I think, is important because historically, across the span of Western art history, we can go back century upon century, most of the depictions of Black people have been done by European artists, Western artists, white artists,” Eshun says.

“That’s not right or wrong per se, but it does leave out the role of Black artists themselves and Black people, as the central figures of agency in those works. We start to see a shift in the 20th century. This exhibition is about artists working in the 21st century.”

‘The Time is Always Now: Artists Reframe the Black Figure’ exhibition runs until May 19.

Africanews and AP

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