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4 Curators on the Artists They’re Celebrating This Black History Month

In honor of Black History Month, we asked four curators to tell us about the artists of Africa and the African diaspora who they’re most excited about now. Each curator’s picks are being featured on Artsy’s Instagram this month, and below, we share a selection of their insights on why they’re inspired by these artists and their work.

Legacy Russell

Associate Curator of Exhibitions, The Studio Museum in Harlem

Portrait of Legacy Russell by Daniel Dorsa.

Portrait of Legacy Russell by Daniel Dorsa.

Russell highlights the three artists who are currently in The Studio Museum in Harlem’s esteemed residency program: E. Jane, Elliot Reed, and Naudline Pierre.

“E. Jane is an interdisciplinary artist using digital images, video, text, performance, sculpture, and cyberspace as primary material, asserting through their work a fantastic Black femme futurity. Since 2016, Jane has been developing the performance persona MHYSA, an underground popstar for the cyber resistance that examines the life of the Black diva and of Black women in pop culture. These different facets of E.’s practice underscores that Black womanhood is multi-dimensional, complex, and range-full, a right to claim that feels urgent in this moment in time.”

“Elliot Reed’s work is challenging and inspiring in that, in the artist’s words, it ‘design[s] conflict systems for bodies in time.’ Elliot’s willingness to place himself in center focus as he interrogates personal histories, current events, institutionalized systems, and spatial politics is vulnerable and revolutionary. To call on a term by , Elliot’s work makes and unmakes ‘anarchitecture,’ calling attention to the body as an unresolved material that requires constant redressing to stay current.”

“Naudline Pierre centers the Black body in her sharp restructuring of the vernacular of traditional religious paintings. This work requires the viewer to ask: ‘Who has been visible within the secular imagination of art-making—and why?’ To have a Black woman holding the brush and quite literally painting Black people into a canon that has long placed them in the background, white-washed them, or excluded them altogether rattles at the foundation of beauty as a supremacist construct, and expands the legacy of spirituality within and outside of the church and the role mythology plays in shaping social and cultural narratives.”

Larry Ossei-Mensah

Curator and Co-Founder, Artnoir

Portrait of Larry Ossei-Mensah by Aaron Ramney.

Portrait of Larry Ossei-Mensah by Aaron Ramney.

Ossei-Mensah discusses three self-taught artists: figurative painters February James and Chase Hall, and abstractionist Patrick Alston.

“I discovered February James’s work maybe two years ago, and I was really enamored by the colors, the forms, and how she was rendering the figure. It just felt different. As a curator, I’m looking for something that makes me feel different. If it does, I begin to investigate why.
“She’s also formally a makeup artist; you think about applying makeup to a face—that takes a certain technique and touch. The works are autobiographical and represent her own experiences; they tell stories. If you look at the eyes, you can tell there’s something more happening within this picture, and you try to reconcile what that is.
“I just curated her into a two-person show at Ross+Kramer Gallery, and she says she really tries to focus on the essence of a person instead of the physicalities, and I think this is something that we tend to become used to when it comes to figurative painting. But—similar to photography, where a beautiful photo really resonates with you—I think it’s about capturing the essence of a moment.”

“Patrick is from the Bronx, like me, and it’s exciting that he is a Black male artist working in abstraction; I’m sure there are others, but I don’t know many at this moment. I am becoming more bullish on abstraction, specifically Black and brown artists working in the form, because it’s an exciting space that we don’t necessarily give enough attention to. In the case of Patrick, there are some very interesting stories about his personal narrative, growing up in the Bronx, but also just being a Black man in America, a father, a husband. There is a speed and a pace and a vibrance in the mark-making in his practice. I can sit in front of one of his works for hours, trying to register the marks, trying to get the sense of how he felt at the end of that day with that painting or that drawing.
“He’s also committed to telling the story of other artists who are working in abstraction. I hope that Patrick will help us think about artists of color who work in abstraction—masters who preceded him, like or . I think some of that gets lost. How do we reconnect to that history? Since it’s not just Black history—it’s American history, it’s art history. These artists have created such a contribution to the community, to the ecosystem, so it’s just making sure there’s balance, so we’re not just leaning towards one way of working.”

“I don’t know if you watch baseball, but Chase Hall is like a utility guy. He paints; he draws; he makes photos and sculptures, and it’s all very intentional—he chooses the best medium that will allow him to express an idea. He uses his art as a platform to critically engage with the racial history of bigotry in the United States. He has a work ethic that I haven’t really seen in a long time.
“I was reading a book on how to see art, and they talk about how the painter touches the canvas, and how you can get a sense of the energy or the intent. When you look at Chase’s paintings, you can see something is happening, you need to know more. And that, for me, is a very unique feeling. I see a lot of ‘pretty’ or ‘nice’ paintings, but when a painting really makes you want to know more, to ask questions of the artist and, in turn, ask questions of ourselves, that definitely stands out.”

Ashley James

Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Portrait of Ashley James by Elle Pérez.

Portrait of Ashley James by Elle Pérez.

Guggenheim Museum curator James spotlights Black women artists who work in abstraction, including Gee’s Bend quilter Lucy T. Pettway, sculptor Mavis Pusey, and the sculptor and painter Suzanne Jackson.

Lucy T. Pettway

Lucy T. Pettway, "Snowball" (Quiltmaker's Name), 1950. Courtesy of Souls Grown Deep and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Lucy T. Pettway, "Snowball" (Quiltmaker's Name), 1950. Courtesy of Souls Grown Deep and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Lucy T. Pettway, "Housetop" And "Bricklayer" Blocks With Bars, 1950. Courtesy of Souls Grown Deep and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Lucy T. Pettway, "Housetop" And "Bricklayer" Blocks With Bars, 1950. Courtesy of Souls Grown Deep and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“I’ve chosen to highlight Black women abstractionists, with specific consideration of the notably varied and disparate ways they’ve collectively chosen to engage and forward the genre. The first is the late Lucy T. Pettway (1921–2004), a member of a collective known as the Gee’s Bend quiltmakers, named after the Alabama hamlet from which these artists hail. With innovative designs that follow and improvise upon a number of historically established geometric patterns, Pettway’s intricate, remarkable textiles are key examples of 20th-century American modernist art.”

Nuvae
Mavis Pusey
Nuvae, ca. 1968
Rago
Mavis Pusey, Dissolution of X, 1970. Courtesy of The Studio Museum in Harlem.

Mavis Pusey, Dissolution of X, 1970. Courtesy of The Studio Museum in Harlem.

“Mavis Pusey, who passed away just last year, created hard-edged, angular, geometric paintings. While many of these paintings appear as pure form, she often found inspiration in the streets of New York City; in flotsam like discarded shutters and wooden floorboards, she located and developed her abstracted visual language. Curated by Hallie Ringle [curator of contemporary art at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama], a highly anticipated retrospective of Pusey’s is forthcoming.”

“For over five decades, Suzanne Jackson has utilized figurative and abstract forms within an experimental painting practice thematically concerned with nature, history, and relationships. In her newer paintings, acrylic has replaced the canvas itself, with materials like netting, wood, and fabrics embedded within the pliable material. These translucent suspensions are abstractions even as they are assemblages, literal containers of history.”

Zoé Whitley

Senior Curator, Hayward Gallery; Director, Chisenhale Gallery, beginning in March 2020

Portrait of Zoé Whitley by James Gifford-Mead.

Portrait of Zoé Whitley by James Gifford-Mead.

Whitley sheds light on Turner Prize winner Lubaina Himid, the rising performance artist Paul Maheke, and the late woodcarver Elijah Pierce. Pierce’s work will be featured in an upcoming show at Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation, opening in June and co-curated by Whitley and Barnes chief curator Nancy Ireson.

“Lubaina Himid is many things to me: She’s an artist I look up to; I completed my doctoral thesis with her; we’ve worked together in a curatorial capacity; and I’m lucky enough to call her a friend. I first came to know her practice around 2003, right at the start of my curatorial career, when I was a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A).
“My first major curatorial outing at the V&A was a group show that Lubaina was a part of, in the lead-up to the U.K.’s recognition of the bicentenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. We displayed some of the figures from Lubaina’s monumental, phenomenally powerful series of 100 painted wooden figures, ‘Naming the Money’ (2004), in the British galleries at the museum. So the aim was to insert a visible Black presence within a British history where we were all too absent. The work’s since been shown in a number of different contexts in its full glory of 100 figures, including in the exhibitions that led up to her nomination and winning of the Turner Prize. She’s also very well-known now for being the first Black woman to win the Turner Prize.”

“Paul Maheke is someone who I was first introduced to in person around 2015 or 2016. He was part of the cohort of artists that presented in the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017. He presented a body of work of glass aquariums, terrariums, and pieces of glass on the floor. The way he was able to combine various materials—if it was hair, or marbles, or water—was incredibly intriguing. He also was able to use space in a really poetic and beautiful way that prefigured where his work has gone; it’s now more or less a performance-based practice.
“His work makes you incredibly aware of not only the space you are in, but that you are occupying the space with his work. I think subsequent performances—such as in Venice in 2019, but also his first major solo show at Chisenhale Gallery in 2018—really made people aware of what a fresh voice and stance he was able to present in terms of thinking about this relationship between time, our bodies, and the space that we occupy.”

Elijah Pierce, Couple with Roses, 1975. Paint on carved wood. The Collection of Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz. Promised gift to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Courtesy of the Barnes Foundation.

Elijah Pierce, Couple with Roses, 1975. Paint on carved wood. The Collection of Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz. Promised gift to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Courtesy of the Barnes Foundation.

Elijah Pierce, Love (Martin Luther King, Jr.), Unknown. Paint, glitter, varnish on wood. The Collection of Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz. Promised gift to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Courtesy of the Barnes Foundation.

Elijah Pierce, Love (Martin Luther King, Jr.), Unknown. Paint, glitter, varnish on wood. The Collection of Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz. Promised gift to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Courtesy of the Barnes Foundation.

“Elijah Pierce is likely to be little known to most people in the art world. He was self-taught; the son of two formerly enslaved parents, he ended up living in Columbus, Ohio. The majority of a representative body of his work is in the collection of the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio, but most people would probably only be familiar with Pierce if they were already completely immersed in the world of . Nancy Ireson and I felt that this was exactly the type of artist who could be seen and shown in a context like the Barnes Foundation, alongside works by and . ‘Fine’ and ‘folk’ are distinctions that other people make and impose, but we don’t necessarily have to give in to those.
“Pierce, who died in 1984, was a preacher, a barber, and a mason. The way that his carving circulated was as gifts bestowed upon members of his congregation and the church. Eventually, by the time of his great renown later in life, he was acknowledged as a master craftsman. With his carving knife and a piece of soft wood, he was able to tell not only a whole history of the United States, but really mine the whole history of us as an African American people. There are figures on their journeys of migration; Mr. Pierce himself made that journey during his lifetime. There are Bible stories and allegories that help us see ourselves and make sense of the world, and some works commented on current events, so there might be a carving of Lena Horne or the Watergate scandal.”
Artsy Editorial