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London: art exhibit examines Black representation

'Untitled (Painter)' by Kerry James Marshall.   -  
Copyright © africanews
Nathan Keay/MCA Chicago

United Kingdom

Featuring works by 22 artists from the African diaspora, a new exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London looks at Black representation in Western art.

'The Time is Always Now' exhibit explores how the Black figure has been depicted by Western art over the centuries and gives leading contemporary artists an opportunity to reframe the narrative. 

Curated by writer Ekow Eshun, the 55 artworks seek to answer questions on history, race and identity. Eshun, who has spent five years creating the show, says it is a personal project. 

"It speaks of many things for me as a person of African origin. I'm really interested in how we speak of, depict, think through, show how we look, how we feel, how we walk through the world, how we encounter space, how we speak of what is within us," says Eshun. 

"This exhibition offers a number of different perspectives on Black being, Black person-hood, Black presence, and I'm really, really proud to have been involved in curating it."

Ongoing conversations

The title is taken from an essay on desegregation by American author James Baldwin, and, according to Eshun, acts as a reminder that Black art is continuing to evolve.

Artwork by artists from the African diaspora are appreciated like never before, says Eshun, and are experiencing "a moment of flourishing". 

The title 'The Time is Always Now', however, "speaks of a moment, but also of a conversation among artists of colour that has been ongoing for always in time."

Leading artists including Michael Armitage, Lubaina Himid, Kerry James Marshall, Toyin Ojih Odutola and Amy Sherald work mostly in the UK and US, but come from a range of places, including Africa and the Caribbean.

New perspectives

Through its three core themes -- Double Consciousness, Persistence of History and Kinship and Connection -- the exhibit presents new perspectives on the Black figure, inviting viewers "to 'see through' the eyes of Black artists and the figures they depict, rather than simply 'look at' them".

Exploring the theory of 'double consciousness', artists such as Claudette Johnson and Amy Sherald use their work to examine stereotypes and how these can be perpetuated by self-perceptions, and those of others around them.

Artists also reflect on history and forgotten narratives in art. 

Kimathi Donkor uses his art to look at stories of those who fought for freedom, while Godfried Donkor's work depicts two African American boxers who were born into slavery but eventually won their freedom.

A celebration

With the Black figure historically represented by Western artists, the 21st century artworks on display here turn those depictions upside down and are largely celebratory in nature.

"The artists in the exhibition depict the Black figure with nuance, with depth, with complexity, with subjectivity," says Eshun. 

"They illustrate the difference and the range of possibilities that come into play when Black artists depict the Black figure. In contrast to a Western history of artists of European or White descent depicting the Black figure.”

The exhibit runsuntil May 19 at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

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