Being immersed in all art genres within the African diaspora is how Richard J. Powell has spent most of his life.
His latest book is the third edition of “Black Art: A Cultural History” from the “World of Art” series published by Thames & Hudson. He tracks an array of artistic achievements as he dissects art forms, artists, and art platforms.
The John Spencer Bassett professor of art and art history at Duke University, Powell explains African diaspora art from blues and reggae to the paintings of Henry Ossawa Tanner, video creations of contemporary hip-hop artists and the context in which they emerged.
During a presentation at the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum, Powell commented on how Black visual art had evolved since the first edition of “Black Art” in 1997, followed by the second edition published in 2002.
“I realized that the first edition had to be broader than Afro-U.S.,” said Powell, recognized internationally as an esteemed art scholar. “It had to take into account all of the exciting things happening in London and around the world, including Africa. That first book was summational to provide a broad understanding about what occurred in the world of art history.”
Guiding Audiences Through Centuries of Black Art
Through the three “Black Art” books, Powell saw his role as looking at moments that merit reflection. He had the freedom to establish themes and issues with book editions one and two. Powell realized the art world had changed with new names and topics requiring attention with this current edition of his book. How did artists of African descent view themselves amid stakes and challenges in the 21st century?
“The charge of edition three was to address the highs and the lows of the past 10 years,” he said. “In the introduction, I tried to frame things that have happened in terms of the profession and new young peoples of African descent in teaching, writing, curating, administering and being part of auction houses. These topics that had not been addressed.”
Looking at Contemporary Art
Powell’s current book analyzes a shift in Black art from the past that looked at a “genteel” world of Black folks compared to 21st-century works that examined class and identity. “Black Art,” the third book is filled with photos of art created from various media. Included are paintings, sculptures using an assortment of hardware, printmaking, photographs, fashion and images from cinema.
Readers will see familiar images in the book like Ernie Barnes’ “The Sugar Shack” which was the cover of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” album. There is an image of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture where we understand how architecture is a reflection of who we are. It is all art, and media is integral in how more people can access art.
Powell was a practicing artist during his undergraduate years at Morehouse College in Atlanta. His Morehouse experience, then in the District at Howard University, where he earned his master’s degree in fine arts, exposed him to art writers, scholars and performers. Two influencers in Powell’s career who he spent a lot of time with were Romare Bearden and David Driskill.
He received his doctorate at Yale University and worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Those experiences direct how Powell examines art and art history.
“I began to realize one could be engaged with the arts, plural, and one could do it in multiple complex, layered nuanced ways,” he said.
“Black Art: A Cultural History” by Richard J. Powell is published by Thames & Hudson and is available at booksellers, including local independent bookstores. Powell has authored more than six books and eight exhibition catalogs, and 71 essays and journal articles.
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