Spoken: Portraits in Black is part of an exhibition program dedicated to showcasing works of art by African-American artists, primarily from the CMA’s collection, which changes approximately every three months.
This second iteration focuses on the powerful art form of portraiture. While many people think of portraiture as an individual sitting to have their image captured on canvas by an artist, the art form is actually broader and much more complex. Indeed, portraits have the ability to help an individual transcend what our eyes can normally see in others. With Spoken: Portraits in Black, Consulting Curator Porchia Moore orchestrates a conversation via portraits about the ways in which African-American artists depict the lived experience of black people. In addition, there is the larger goal of connecting African-American artists’ practice of portraiture with the legacy and history of portraiture practiced throughout the continent of Africa and the diaspora (the migration of Africans to other parts of the world).
Portraits can be literal representations of a person or they can represent a person symbolically. Portraits in Black features works that might not traditionally be regarded as portraiture but rather show how artists continually stretch the definitions of artistic categories. The pieces chosen for this exhibition not only seek to capture the sitter’s physical appearance, but center the black face and body as means for illuminating character, disposition, and even inner psyche. Many of the featured works, such as Marion Griffon’s Diane Dahome, do not capture precise facial features but rather promote and develop new compositional devices within the art form. Griffon’s bold use of color accentuates the interpretation of the individual painted, and the artist’s preference to make choices about the bold yellow background and what it might reveal about the subject are tantalizing.
In the tradition of fine art, portraits are made from a variety of media including sculpture, painting, and photography. While the history of portraiture is regarded as one largely rooted in European traditions, many contemporary artists of African descent—including artists featured in Spoken such as Robert Pruitt, James Van Der Zee, and Sargent Johnson—are now seen as part of this history for their innovations as well as their achievements. With Spoken: Portraits in Black, the CMA is highlighting the power and tradition of the portrait as meaningful genre with a nod to the dynamic contributions by African-American artists.