Trailer: “Get Out” (2017), Written and Directed by Jordan Peele. | Video by Universal Pictures


‘GET OUT’ was “a phenomenal piece of work,” artist Kerry James Marshall said. Kenya Barris, the television writer and producer, is drawn to the neon work “Double America 2” (2014) by Glenn Ligon. “The simplicity of it is radical and confrontational,” he said. For Mickalene Thomas, Jet magazine was a game changer: It “shaped not only African-American people but also American culture through entertainment, through images, through music and fashion and storytelling.”

Spanning visual art, film, television, literature, music, and the performing arts, a new feature published in the New York Times explores “The African-American Art Shaping the 21st Century.” The newspaper posits that black creatives have profoundly influenced the arts landscape in the 20 years since the turn of the new century. Projects from Jordan Peele, Ava DuVernay, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Kara Walker, for example, have redefined genres and shifted American culture.

“It’s the first time since the 1970s that black art, history and political life have come together in such a broad, profound and diverse way,” Wesley Morris wrote in a brief introduction to the project. Back then, the Black Arts Movement was active. Today, elements of Black Lives Matter are reflected in Beyoncé’s performances. Kendrick Lamar raises issues surrounding mass incarceration in his work. “Moonlight” brought beautiful cinematography to the big screen and, at the same time, confronted challenging issues surrounding black male sexuality.

“It’s the first time since the 1970s that black art, history and political life have come together in such a broad, profound and diverse way.”

The Times invited 35 leading African American creators from a variety of disciplines to talk about the artist or share the work that has inspired them the most over the past 20 years. Photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier said Flint water activists. Ava DuVernay named Los Angeles Poet Laureate Robin Coste Lewis. Margo Jefferson said experimental black literature. For choreographer Kyle Abraham it was D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah” album. Lena Waithe went with the TV show “Atlanta.” Kerry Washington said Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” album. John Legend named Ta-Nehisi Coates. Broadway star Audra McDonald selected Lizzo. Harry Belafonte chose the song “Glory,” a collaboration between Legend and Common. Many pointed to visual artists and a few of them also weighed in:


GLENN LIGON, “Double America,” 2012 (Neon and paint, 36 x 120 inches). | National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Agnes Gund


Writer/Producer Kenya Barris on “Double America 2” by Glenn Ligon
“It turns America on itself, abstracting it. That really struck me because I find that abstract art is something black people don’t really get to do. We’re not given the opportunity to do black art that way. And in this piece, Glenn turns that notion on its head. For me, the simplicity of it is radical and confrontational.”

Artist Kerry James Marshall on Jordan Peele’s film “Get Out”
“That was a phenomenal piece of work. It did everything that I thought a film like that was supposed to do because it seemed like real cinema. It wasn’t a movie; it was cinema. When you hear him talk about the film, you can see that he’s a student of cinema.”

Soprano Julia Bullock on Kara Walker
“The first time I saw her work was at the Broad museum in Los Angeles. When I entered into the space there were these really dynamic silhouettes that seemed quite playful. But the closer I got, I realized what she was depicting. To say it made me happy is maybe a weird statement, but when I encounter any work of art that is talking about racism or anything that’s going on with blackness, I’m looking for something that is quite explicit.… When dealing with this subject matter, trying to treat it politely or quote unquote appropriately, there’s just no time and space for that.”

Director/Writer Dee Rees on Wangechi Mutu
“It really jolted my thinking and reminded me of what’s possible when you let your imagination fly. It was a wake-up call to being more fantastical. I remember seeing her exhibition in Brooklyn and just being completely mesmerized.”

Poet Tracy K. Smith on Kahlil Joseph’s “BLKNWS”
“It’s this video essay that uses two screens to depict images—from the news, from pop culture footage, from YouTube, from cinema, from the sciences—that speak to or just show central moments from black life.… I think I sat there for about almost an hour, taking this stuff in and each element speaks to you. What I feel it’s doing is creating this almost large-scale sense of black humanity and what resilience it has, what forces working within and sometimes against it have looked like. I found it to be one of the most coherent and compelling examinations of blackness and of America that I’ve ever seen.”

Eric V. Copage, a former Times reporter and author of several books on African American culture, also contributed. Copage wrote an essay titled “For Future Generations, It’s Time to Reflect on Black Art.” He explained the intent of the project and its lasting legacy.

“Shifts in politics, performance and protest have all altered our culture in a way not seen in years,” Copage wrote. “The beauty of this exercise in reflection is not only to celebrate black cultural contributions to art but also record a pivotal time for our country—indeed the world.” CT


FIND MORE Kahlil Joseph covered Surface magazine’s Art Issue in December 2019


“Glenn Ligon: AMERICA,” accompanied the artist’s 25-year survey. “Kara Walker: Hyundai Commission” documents Kara Walker’s monumental exhibition in Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London. “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry” was published to coincide with Kerry James Marshall’s 35-year survey. Also consider “Kerry James Marshall: History of Painting” and “Kerry James Marshall (Phaidon Contemporary Artist Series).” Also “Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey” accompanied the artist’s first major solo museum exhibition. Several recent volumes explore the work of Mickalene Thomas, including “Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires,” “Mickalene Thomas: I Can’t See You Without Me,” and “Muse: Mickalene Thomas: Photographs.” In addition, “Mickalene Thomas: Origin of the Universe” was published to coincide with her first solo museum exhibition.


KARA WALKER, Installation view of “Africant,” 1996 (cut paper on wall, 144 x 792 inches / 365.76 x 2011.68 cm). | © Kara Walker, The Broad


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