In HBO’s ‘Black Art,’ creativity triumphs over history

Amy Sherald is shown painting her portrait of Michelle Obama.
Amy Sherald, who painted the portrait of Michelle Obama that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, is one of the many contemporary artists featured in the new HBO documentary “Black Art: In the Absence of Light.”

Documentary looks at 200 years of creativity in the face of injustice


When artist and art historian David Driskell brought his groundbreaking “Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750-1950” exhibition to a series of museums in 1976 and 1977, some people thought that more than 200 works by 63 artists (and some anonymous crafts workers) was too much of a good thing. Driskell did not agree.

“I was not looking for a unified theme,” Driskell told The New York Times in a 1977 interview. “And this, of course, usually upsets the critics because they want to see a continuous kind of thing.”

When you are trying to right the exclusionary wrongs of history, less is never going to be more. That was true for Driskell, and it is true for “Black Art: In the Absence of Light,” a new HBO documentary that uses Driskell and his landmark exhibition as a jumping-off point for a wide-ranging, densely populated look at the past, present and future of Black art and artists in America.

It is not a continuous thing, either. But it is a fascinating, essential thing.

Directed by Sam Pollard (“MLK/FBI”), the film starts with a look at “Two Centuries of Black American Art.” It opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in September 1976, where it promptly broke attendance records and blew many minds. Although the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art had presented the smaller “Dimensions in Black” exhibition in 1970, this was the first time a major American art museum had devoted an entire exhibition to Black artists, and the breadth and depth of the collection was both a shock and a revelation.

It should not have come as a shock that Black artists had been creating and innovating for 200 years, but it was. Centuries of being ignored by historians, curators, collectors and scholars has that effect. But that’s how Driskell knew he was on the right track.

“I guess it was a teaching moment for them,” Driskell remembers in the documentary, which was filmed before his death due to the coronavirus last April. “At the same time, I had a chance to really say, ‘This is something that ought to be done, because the American canon is not complete without it.’”

Some 88,000 people saw the exhibition in Los Angeles, and as it traveled to the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and finally the Brooklyn Museum in New York, it was viewed by many thousands more. But as Pollard’s documentary makes clear, the ripple effect went far beyond the museums’ walls.

Artist Sanford Biggers — whose statement-making work includes films, installations, sculptures and quilts — grew up leafing through Driskell’s book version of the exhibition and marveling at the nuanced images of Black people he saw inside. Jordan Casteel — who paints large, vibrant portraits of friends and community members — remembers finding a sense of belonging in the book’s reproductions of works by Charles White, Hale Woodruff and University of California San Diego Professor Emeritus Faith Ringgold.

Casteel and Biggers are just two of the many acclaimed contemporary artists featured in “Black Arts,” which finds Pollard taking Driskell’s completist vision to heart as he aims to cover the Black artistic experience from every possible angle. So after introducing Driskell and “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” the film takes on Harlem’s famed Studio Museum and the influence of historically Black colleges and universities. It also zigzags from the challenges faced by Black women artists to the emergence of Black art collectors like rapper Swizz Beatz, and then it’s off to the stunning achievements that were Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald’s unconventional portraits of President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.

Following Pollard through the film’s 85 idea- and art-packed minutes is like race-walking through the Met without a map. You will want to stop and take in Kara Walker’s transgressive silhouettes, Theaster Gates’ genre-leaping works, and Ringgold’s gut-punching paintings. You will want more time with Harvard professor Sarah Lewis, Spelman College President Mary Schmidt Campbell, and passionate art historian Maurice Berger, who died last March of coronavirus-related causes. But Pollard has more canon-expanding ground to cover, so you have to keep moving.

Every moment in “Black Art: In the Absence of Light” is a teaching moment, and to Pollard’s credit, it will inspire you to learn more. Given how history has left Black artists with so much less than they deserve for so long, that is no small thing.

“Black Art: In the Absence of Light” is available on HBO on Demand. Go to for a curriculum and art projects inspired by the film.

First Look: “Nadiya Bakes”

The ever-helpful Netflix elves have put this new baking series in the “feel good” category, and the elves are not wrong. This 29-minute show hosted by “Great British Baking Show” favorite Nadiya Hussain is a mood-lifting combination of bright colors, bouncy music and delicious goodies baked by one of the sunniest human beings on the planet. If this show does not make you smile, time to stop bingeing those serial killer shows.

Each episode finds Hussain zipping through three (or more) baking recipes and spotlighting the work of a baker she admires. The first episode is dedicated to “Classic Bakes With a Twist,” and it somehow makes strawberry and clotted cream cupcakes, blueberry scone pizza and a twist on the Toad in the Hole savory pudding look pretty doable. There isn’t time for step-by-step instructions, but if you are serious about baking these beautiful creations, the recipes are easy to find on the web. Or you can just sit back with a bag of mint Milanos and watch Nadiya sift, whisk and pipe your troubles away.

“For me, baking really is my happy place,” Hussain says. “I want it to be yours, too.” Don’t you feel better already?

“Nadiya Bakes” streams on Netflix.