Visual Culture

Photographer Dario Calmese’s “Black Art Yearbook” Is Crucial to Art History

Rikki Byrd
Aug 21, 2018 9:02PM

Dario Calmese, Kehinde. Courtesy of the artist.

Dario Calmese, Thelma. Courtesy of the artist.

In a similar way that black artists are often obscured from the canon of art, so, too, are black curators, art critics, gallerists, art dealers, and collectors. When photographer Dario Calmese was gifted a Lomography camera earlier this year, he began a body of work that aimed to rectify this historically consistent trend in the arts, capturing a class of art savants both inside and on the margins. He named the project the “Black Art Yearbook.”

“The more I went around, I saw [that] there’s this whole body of people who are not only artists, but make black art possible,” Calmese told Artsy. “We have to know that they exist.”

Dario Calmese, Larry. Courtesy of the artist.

Dario Calmese, April. Courtesy of the artist.


So far, he has captured 70 luminaries, with the goal of photographing several more. Among his inaugural class is portrait artist Kehinde Wiley; director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, Thelma Golden; and music producer Swizz Beatz, who has become a well-known art collector and supporter of black artists. He also included gallery owner and director at Jack Shainman Gallery Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels; art critic Antwaun Sargent; and artist and filmmaker Shikeith Cathey, a recent Yale MFA graduate.

Calmese considers what is occurring presently in the art world as something akin to the Harlem Renaissance, an era in which a host of black artists from varying disciplines such as literature, visual art, and music communed to foster support and creativity. A record for posterity’s sake so that today’s artists, too, can be remembered, the “Black Art Yearbook” simultaneously poses a hypothesis: When black artists document and celebrate the work of their peers in the moment, and not merely in retrospect, it gives the work the velocity to secure its place in art history. On a larger scale, these efforts can dismantle systemic structures so that a history of exclusion is no longer a possibility.

Dario Calmese, Devin. Courtesy of the artist.

Dario Calmese, Hank. Courtesy of the artist.

This year alone has seen a number of milestones for black creatives. Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley, through their paintings of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, became the first black artists commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery. Kerry James Marshall’s painting Past Times (1997) sold for $21.1 million, making him the most expensive living black artist at auction. And the Studio Museum in Harlem partnered with Sotheby’s for an auction that exclusively sold artworks by black artists, helping the museum raise funds for a capital campaign focused on its new building. Meanwhile, on the silver screen, Black Panther broke several records during its theater run, and Jordan Peele became the first black person to win an Academy Award for best original screenplay for his 2017 film Get Out.

Some might fear that this moment in which black art is excelling and being received in droves is temporary. History has proven that during moments of heightened racial turmoil, the mainstream has a tendency to appear more accepting of black culture, but rarely black people (for example, the contentious 1969 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition “Harlem on My Mind,” which centered on black culture but excluded black artists).

That contradiction makes Calmese’s “Black Art Yearbook” even more crucial. “Given our current treacherous socio-political state, much of the contemporary black artistic landscape is being diminished as reactionary,” wrote filmmaker Shikeith Cathey via email. “However, in reality, projects like [the ‘Yearbook’] arise not as a result of terror but out of the lineage of compassion and archiving black communities have always built around each other. It is important that we continue to place emphasis on intra-communal preservation and care.”

Dario Calmese, Ming. Courtesy of the artist.

Dario Calmese, Swiss. Courtesy of the artist.

Calmese thinks that the power dynamics are beginning to shift as more black people enter positions of power and make decisions that are considerate of marginalized communities; that makes it less likely for this collective awareness and production of black art to be momentary. “There’s power, there’s excellence, there’s a different level of conversation to be had when you bring in diverse voices,” Calmese said. “I think black people are just turning to each other and saying, ‘Let’s just do our shit.’”

To that end, Calmese points to Rujecko Hockley, an assistant curator at the Whitney who he has photographed for this project. Hockley co-curated Toyin Ojih Odutola’s 2017 exhibition “To Wander Determined,” and will also organize the museum’s 2019 biennial. Prior to her current position, she worked as a curator at the Brooklyn Museum, where she curated the much-acclaimed “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965–85,” an exhibition centering women artists and activists of color.

Ultimately, the “Black Art Yearbook” demands for black art to hold a credible stake in the industry at large; the people featured in the archive so far exemplify just that. “When all is said and done…there’s documentation of this group of people who existed, who were working, who were pushing, and perhaps passively protesting in their own way,” Calmese said. “It’s not a resistance or buttressing against whiteness. This is about black people for black people.”

Rikki Byrd