Review: ‘Collecting Black Studies’ generates new cartographies of art


Identity, resistance, transition, and abstraction–these are the tentpoles of Black artistic expression that the University of Texas’ Art Galleries at Black Studies celebrates in its current exhibition, “Collecting Black Studies: An Exhibition.”

On view until May 14, the show offers an incredible range of artists through the decades and it stresses the importance of archiving Black artists’ contributions to the field. Featuring the work of Sam Gilliam, Dawoud Bey, Tammie Rubin, Deborah Roberts, and many others, history and the present breathe deeply together in the gallery. In gathering such a dynamic range of art styles and mediums, the exhibition demonstrates how artists adhere to their cultural moment while remaining true to what each moment has meant for Black people.

Romare Bearden
Romare Bearden, “The Toreador,” 1946. Watercolor and gouache. John L. Warfield Center Contemporary Art Collection, University of Texas

The show springs from the 2020 publication “Collecting Black Studies: The Art of Material Culture at the University of Texas at Austin” (UT Press). But its curator, and former AGBS gallery director Lise Ragbir, adds recent acquisitions. As a result, the exhibition feels less like an archival study and more like a display of the collective imagination of Black artists — what they have achieved and how they have achieved it.

I took note of how much potential and range there is in articulating an experience of identity and culture throughout history. As a Black person, it’s not common to see my artistic lineage represented all in one place because I come from an ancestry that has been neglected and even erased. And it is powerful to witness the art of my ancestors and community persisting and continuing to be made anew.

Based on most modern and contemporary art galleries and museums I have visited globally, one would hypothesize that Black people had little to do with the development of major artistic movements. They are too often excluded from landmark innovations in art history such as Abstract Expressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism, to name a few. If a person’s knowledge of art only came from the walls of the world’s major art museums — which is true for so many people — it would be ignorant of the talent of so many artists who pioneered and innovated these movements. Not only did many Black artists add to milestones in their field, they also paved a landscape for Black audiences to see their experiences as vital to the trajectory of modern art.

While the display of some token pieces of Black art has become something of a must for most museums to evade criticism today, a commitment to acquiring art by Black artists has not always been prioritized. In the summer of 2020, a group of BIPOC artists sold their work to fundraise in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests. New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art seized this opportunity to purchase it at disrespectfully low prices and then display it without any compensation to the artists. The museum eventually canceled the exhibition, but only after immense backlash. The Whitney incident spotlights an upsetting desire in the museum world to keep up the appearance of inclusion without inviting the artists to have a meaningful seat at the table.

Here in Austin, “Collecting Black Studies” seeks to remedy this hole in the archive not only by displaying the already collected work of historical Black artists by UT Black Studies Art and Archives Initiative, but the new work by living artists who contribute to our current moment. The show includes living artists such as the Austin-based Deborah Roberts who converses with Black art styles of the past to design the possibilities of where artistic expression for Black experiences can lead. And seeing a graphic collage print by Howardena Pindell next to an Abstract Expressionist painting by the late Norman Lewis generates entirely new cartographies for the expression of Black identity.

Howardina Pindell
Howardina Pindell, “Autobiography: Past & Present II,” 2005. Lithograph, John L. Warfield Center Contemporary Art Collection, University of Texas

The issue is about more than representation. It’s about opening the parameters of which works of art matter to our conceptions of self so that we come to know our history, and know where we might go.

“Collecting Black Studies” is on view at the Christian-Green Gallery through May 14.

Renae Jarrett
Renae Jarrett
Renae Jarrett is a writer and an art lover. She received her MFA in Playwriting at the University of Texas at Austin.

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