With works in all media by nearly eighty artists dating from the 1920s the present, Black Refractions presents close to a century of creative achievements by artists of African descent. Celebrating The Studio Museum in Harlem’s role as a site for the dynamic exchange of ideas about art and society, this landmark exhibition proposes a plurality of narratives of black artistic production and multiple approaches to understanding these works. Organized by the American Federation of Arts and The Studio Museum in Harlem, the exhibition reveals the breadth and expansive growth of the Studio Museum’s permanent collection and includes iconic pieces by artists such as Barkley Hendricks, Faith Ringgold, Lorna Simpson, Alma Thomas, and James VanDerZee, as well as Seattle’s own Jacob Lawrence and Noah Davis, among many others.
The Studio Museum in Harlem has served as a nexus for artists of African descent locally, nationally, and internationally since its founding in 1968—a watershed year that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, major demonstrations against the Vietnam War, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s Black Power salute at the Summer Olympics. The Museum’s founders were a diverse group of artists, activists, and philanthropists, all committed to creating a working space for artists and a forum in which communities could view and interpret art in Harlem. At the same time, they sought to foreground the work of black artists amid larger discussions of exclusionary practices in cultural institutions across the United States.
The Studio Museum’s Artist-in-Residence program—providing the “Studio” in the Museum’s name—was established as an opportunity for emerging artists to create new work in the heart of Harlem, a neighborhood historically associated with black cultural production. The program has supported many distinguished creators at decisive stages in their careers, including Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Chakaia Booker, David Hammons, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas, and Kehinde Wiley, all of whom have work included in the exhibition. Now, as the Studio Museum celebrates its 50th anniversary, Black Refractions will allow audiences across the country to engage more deeply with this important collection and provide additional contexts in which we can understand its powerful works.
Black Refractions is accompanied by a new publication of the same title co-published by the American Federation of Arts and Rizzoli Electa. The richly illustrated volume includes essays by Connie H. Choi and Kellie Jones; entries by a range of writers, curators and scholars (among them Lauren Haynes, Ashley James, Oluremi C. Onabanjo, Larry Ossei-Mensah and Hallie Ringle) who contextualize the works and provide detailed commentary; and a conversation among Choi, Thelma Golden, and Jones that draws out themes and challenges in collecting and exhibiting modern and contemporary art by artists of African descent.