Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, Lady on Blue Couch, 2019 (sourced from an image of Velma Rosai Makhandia, originally photographed and copyrighted by Naafia Naahemaa, Berlin, 2018), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of John Auerbach and Ed Tang, © Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, image of painting by Robert Wedemeyer, courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects Los Angeles

Celebrate Black Love, Joy, and Abundance with Black American Portraits

August 19, 2021
Alexander Schneider, Assistant Editor

In 1976 the Los Angeles County Museum of Art opened Two Centuries of Black American Art as its major exhibition for the American bicentennial year. This pioneering exhibition was the first comprehensive survey of African American art which, following its premiere at LACMA, ended up touring three other major U.S. art institutions: Atlanta's High Museum of Art, the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, and the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibition's curator, artist and art historian David Driskell (1931–2020), presenting over 200 works made by 63 artists between 1750 to 1950, sought to acknowledge the work of Black artists whose contributions to American art had largely been neglected.

LACMA's upcoming exhibition Black American Portraits is envisioned in part as a tribute to Two Centuries of Black American Art and its spirit of championing Black artists and subjects. Drawing from over two centuries of objects and artworks, mainly from the museum's permanent collection and including some new acquisitions exhibited for the first time, the exhibition presents an opportunity to examine significant and often overlooked contributions to portraiture, a medium crucial for building and shaping images of the self and communities, reframing the history of American portraiture to center Black subjects, spaces, and makers. In homage to Driskell's 1976 exhibition, Black American Portraits co-curators Christine Y. Kim and Liz Andrews hope to counter an art historical narrative that often demonizes, fetishizes, or neglects Blackness, and instead celebrate “Black love, abundance, family, self-possesion, and self-expression.”

The nearly 150 works of art featured in Black American Portraits tell a dynamic story of Black life in America. From the exhibition's earliest work—the late-eighteenth-century Portrait of a Sailor (Paul Cuffe?)—to images of the Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights, and Black Power eras, and through to contemporary artists' reflections on the tumultuous years of 2020 and 2021, visitors will journey through two centuries of Black self-representation. The works in the show, which include pieces by self-taught artists and several non-Black artist allies, express a variety of mediums, from painting and drawing to sculpture and time-based media, and are organized around themes such as family, legacy, and memory; myth, legend, and futurism; and queer subjects and spaces.

Black American Portraits will be on view at LACMA alongside The Obama Portraits Tour, featuring Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald's iconic portraits of President Barack Obama and Mrs. Michelle Obama from the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Below, take a peek at some highlights from Black American Portraits before both exhibitions open November 7.

Portrait of a Sailor (Paul Cuffe?), United States, circa 1800, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Purchased with funds provided by Cecile Bartman, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Sargent Claude Johnson, Chester, 1930, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Mrs. William J. Robertson in memory of her father Adolph Loewi, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Elizabeth Catlett, Sharecropper, 1952, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of the 2011 American Art Acquisitions Group, © 2021 Catlett Mora Family Trust/licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Kwame Brathwaite, Untitled (Carolee Prince Wearing Her Own Designs), 1964, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, promised gift of Kim and Keith Allen-Niesen, © Kwame Brathwaite, photo courtesy of the Kwame Brathwaite Archive and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles

Deborah Willis, Hank Willis Thomas, Sometimes I See Myself in You, 2008, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of the artists, © Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, I Still Face You, 2015, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by Holly and Albert Baril and AHAN: Studio Forum, 2015 Art Here and Now Purchase, © Njideka Akunyili Crosby, courtesy of the artist, Victoria Miro, and David Zwirner, photo: Joshua White Photography

Deborah Roberts, Breaking ranks, 2018, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by Karen R. Constine, the Ralph M. Parsons Fund, George and Azita Fatheree, Nike O. Opadiran, and Demetrio and Gianna Kerrison, © Deborah Roberts, photo by Philip Rogers

Clifford Prince King, Safe Space, 2020, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Graham Steele and Ulysses De Santi, © Clifford Prince King, photo courtesy of the artist

Bisa Butler, Forever, 2020, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of D’Rita and Robbie Robinson, © Bisa Butler, photo courtesy of the artist and Claire Oliver Gallery, New York