"A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self" (1980) by Kerry James Marshall. Paper on egg tempera.

Last week, I watched a revealing documentary on HBO Max that brought Black History Month, the very essence of it, into visceral focus for me.  

“Black Art: In the Absence of Light,” which premiered on HBO and HBO Max on Feb. 9, is one of the best documentaries on art I’ve ever seen — not that I’ve seen many of them. 

The subject captivates me, because I’m the son of a Black artist and gallery owner, and grew up surrounded by Black art. As a teenager, I would spend my weekends and summers inside of my father’s gallery near Oak Park Avenue and Garfield Street. The building, which was once adjacent to where Carnival Grocery currently sits (back then it was Pan’s), was razed several years back to make space for the parking lot that is there now. 

That’s where I was introduced to the work of the great Black artist Elizabeth Catlett. It’s where my father grappled with what to do with the work of the Dr. Margaret Burroughs, the late founder of the DuSable Museum of African American History and a mother of Black art in Chicago. 

I remember my father and I going to Dr. Burroughs’s South Side home one summer afternoon and rummaging through mounds of garbage bags soiled in cat litter, as if dumpster diving, picking through the detritus of a formerly great civilization whose luster had dimmed.

One day, my father, wanting to guard against the march of time, to memorialize the Black arts scene in the Chicago area that he knew and loved, organized a photo shoot outside of Dr. Burrough’s famed South Side Community Art Center, which was the first Black art museum in the country when it opened in Bronzeville in 1940. 

A black-and-white photo showing a significant part of Chicago’s Black arts community. Dr. Burroughs is seated in the middle, pictured in one of her trademark hats next to my father, pictured smiling in a white shirt. Kerry James Marshall is peaking out from behind the right column. 

My father wanted the photo to be an ode to Art Kane’s 1958 black-and-white photo of 57 jazz musicians, the iconic “A Great Day in Harlem.” Squint and there’s Count Basie. Squint again and there’s Theolonious Monk. 

Seated in the second row, fifth from the left, is Dr. Burroughs. My father is seated directly to her left. All the way on the porch, peaking from behind the column that is on the viewer’s right side is Kerry James Marshall, my favorite painter. 

Of course, at the time, I didn’t appreciate who Marshall was or would become or, for that matter, what place the photo, some two decades later, would have in the collective memory of Black Chicago.  

I didn’t really understand Marshall or his work until I visited a solo exhibition of his at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2016. The exhibit, called “Mastry,” was where I first saw Marshall’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self” (1980), up close and personal. 

You can’t really appreciate Black art without knowing the social and historical context in which it was created and Marshall’s “A Portrait” may be the most concise, most economic artistic depiction of the Black experience in America. 

Marshall’s 1980 painting is, quite frankly, ugly at first glance. It’s crude, even borderline offensive, and that’s part of the point. But you have to go below the surface to really understand what Marshall is doing, which he explains in “Black Art: In the Absence of Light.” 

“One of the things I was trying to do was embody in a picture the concept that Ralph Ellison had laid out in his novel ‘Invisible Man,’” Marshall said in the documentary. “He describes the condition of invisibility as it relates to Black people in America — this condition of being seen and not seen simultaneously. 

“And that’s what I [see in] the black figure against the black ground, where if you change the color temperature of the black, it creates enough separation so that you can alternately see and then sometimes not see the figure that’s present there.” 

Marshall uses the technique of grayscale, mixing black and white, in his work. In the documentary, he introduced me to the idea that black “is not the absence of color, it’s particular kinds of color …

“If I went to the store, I could buy three different variations of black paint. I could buy an ivory black, I could buy a carbon black and I could buy an iron oxide black, or something that’s called Mars black, and if you look at each one of those colors they are not the same thing.”

Marshall’s painting, in one fell swoop, encapsulates both the incredible diversity of Blackness, but also the fact of its artificial flatness (as monochromatic as ‘whites only’ and ‘blacks only’ signs). America’s ugly reality is that the myth of race has created a Black underclass in this country that is divorced from merit or creed. 

Marshall, whose paintings now sell in the millions of dollars, is a unique success story; so are artists like Kehinde Wiley, former president Barack Obama’s portraitist (an original Wiley painting hangs prominently on the walls of the Oak Park Public Library). 

But the much more pervasive truth is that the vast majority of Black artists operate in an institutional void, and not due to a lack of talent or vision or skill. I’ve seen this underworld firsthand through my father, who along with most artists in that photograph he organized on the South Side, have toiled outside of the glow of museum lights or Sotheby’s shine. 

I’ve hauled foldable exhibition booths to and from convention centers at trade shows for Black doctors and Black lawyers, at conventions for Black sororities, at Black film festivals on Martha’s Vineyard, and even in and out of the homes of Black professionals.

Don’t get it twisted, these Black artists make it work. They form their own communities and forge their own paths. Some, like my father, make good livings for themselves. But they do so without the institutional leverage afforded white artists who are no more talented or driven than they are.

In the HBO Max documentary, I learned that, according to a recent survey of major American museums, 85 percent of the artists represented in those major museums are white. Fifteen percent are artists of color, among whom just 1.2 percent are Black. 

Black artists may work away from the shine of museum lights, but they are often subject to America’s long history of racial gaslighting, or denying and manipulating the reality of racism and white supremacy whenever whites are confronted with this ugly reality, especially by Blacks. 

When the late great curator David Driskell organized “Two Centuries of Black American Art” in 1976 — perhaps the most comprehensive exhibition of Black art in the country’s history — major museums in cities like Detroit and Chicago turned down his offer to bring the exhibition to their facilities. 

Many white people in the art world questioned why an exhibit exclusive to Black artists was needed, at all — mind you, if the statistics mentioned above are what they are circa 2021, just imagine what they were in the 1970s. 

Mary Schmidt Campbell, the current president of Spelman College and former executive director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, recounted how some of those same white people seemed bewildered at the idea of a “Black fine arts museum.” 

“Some of them thought what we were doing was laughable,” Campbell said in the documentary, recalling her experience helming the Studio Museum. “‘Why do you need a Black fines arts museum?” they would ask. “You have MOMA, you have MET.” 

A day after I watched that documentary, I watched “Judas and the Black Messiah,” also on HBO and HBO Max. The film is based on the life of Fred Hampton, the Illinois Black Panther Party chairman who was assassinated by law enforcement in 1969.

Hampton lived five blocks from where I grew up in Maywood. As a community journalist, I wrote the obituaries of Hampton’s older brother Bill, who I knew well; along with his sister Dee Dee and his mother Iberia. I’ve interviewed his son, Fred Hampton Jr., who now lives in the 17th Avenue apartment building where his father was raised and where I’ve visited multiple times. And I’ve been called a Marxist by social media trolls for my work. 

Decades separate people in Hampton’s generation and people in mine, but one of the big things we have in common is the experience of being told that what we know to be real, what empirical data shows to be real, is, in (point of American alternative) fact, not real at all. Four-hundred years in and Black folk are still invisible despite being the focal point of America’s gaze. 

And this is not benign or unproblematic. Blacks since the great 19th century romantic landscape painter Edward Bannister (and generations before him) have been pressured, at times at gun point, to deny our own realities; to make-believe that we are not being ignored, or choked, or shot at indiscriminately. 

To speak the truth is often beyond the pale and to defend ourselves is, as the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board wrote of Hampton and the Black Panthers in 1969, “to declare war on society” and to forfeit “the right to considerations ordinary violators of the law might claim.” 

There is no such thing as police brutality — only terroristic Blacks. And J. Edgar Hoover was no racist; and Edward Hanrahan, of River Forest, was not implicated in the assassination of Fred Hampton; and Anita Alvarez, of River Forest, did not actually claim on national TV that the Dixmoor Five engaged in necrophilia (Google it). 

Must you all have your very own Black History Month and Black art museum and Black colleges? Isn’t that reverse racism? 

If, to earn some institutional shine we must defer to this kind of gaslighting, then, as Bartleby, the Scrivener famously said, “I’d prefer not to.” The great Black maker Theaster Gates articulated my sentiment even better in the HBO Max documentary.

“If Blackness has something to do with the absence of light, does Black art mean that sometimes I’m making when no one’s looking? For the most part, that has been the truth of our lives,” Gates said.

“Is there a light? Yes. But until we own the light, I’m not happy. Until we’re in our own houses of exhibition, of discovery, of research — until we’ve figured out a way to be masters of the world, then I’d rather work in darkness, because at least I know that I’m working. I don’t want to work only when the light comes on. My fear is that we’re being trained and conditioned to only make when there’s a light. And that makes us co-dependent on a thing we don’t control. Are you willing to make in the absence of light?” 

Good question.

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