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12 Exhibits You Should See This Black History Month

This may come as no surprise but I love visual art. I love it for some superficial reasons, like aesthetics and visual appeal. But one of the most transformative things about visual art is how it adds to my vocabulary and offers language that I didn't have to describe my experiences and the experiences of others.  I first encountered this with Chanel Thervil's "Enigma." The piece was Thervil's way of reckoning with the subtleties of racism. The exhibit subsequently provided a schematic for conceptualizing and explicitly naming microaggressions.

I hope that the exhibits on this list do for you what "Enigma" did for me. I hope that they will give you language. No matter your identity, these exhibits will make you question what you know while providing (some) tools for you to excavate meaning out of your visit. Although Black History Month is quickly coming to a close, you still have plenty of time to see some of these exhibits before they make their exit from Boston and Massachusetts. Some of the shows feature artists from across the globe, and others highlight local creatives, based right here in Beantown.

'Heirloom'

Spoke Gallery

Through March 20

Community is at the heart of this collaborative photography and textile exhibit from Stephen Hamilton and Stacey Hamilton. Creatives and artists from the communities of Roxbury, Dorchester and beyond take center stage in "Heirloom," serving as the subjects for portraits taken by Stacey. Their clothing and the textiles, all referencing precolonial Africa, featured in the photos were hand dyed, designed and stitched by Stephen (who was part of our ARTery 25 cohort last year). "Heirloom" redefines community by offering viewers an alternate account of both our history and our present.

Stephen Hamilton, "Owners of the Earth." (Courtesy Stephen Hamilton)
Stephen Hamilton, "Owners of the Earth." (Courtesy Stephen Hamilton)

Angela Davis: Freed By The People

Schlesinger Library

Through March 9

This exhibit is (admittedly) the only one on the list that doesn't center some on sort of visual arts practice. However, I'm an archivist at heart and I recognize the deep and radical importance of documents, books and other literary ephemera. "Angela Davis: Freed By The People" uses archival material to provide context for the conditions that sparked Angela Davis' work and her subsequent fame (or infamy, depending on who you are) as a leader of the black liberation movement. Davis also donated a collection of her papers, photographs and written materials to the library, which you can also see during your visit. “My papers reflect 50 years of involvement in activist and scholarly collaborations seeking to expand the reach of justice in the world,” says Davis.

'Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail the Dark Lioness'

The Cooper Gallery

Through June 2020

The photography of Zanele Muholi stopped me in my tracks years back as I made my way through the MFA.  This new exhibit of their work at the Cooper Gallery, curated by Renée Mussai, is a must see. Muholi is both the photographer and the subject.  Beyond the drama of the color contrast in their portraiture, Muholi fashions everyday items into objects that reckon with current and past systems of violence and disenfranchisement.

Ntozakhe II, Parktown, 2016. (Courtesy Zanele Muholi)
Ntozakhe II, Parktown, 2016. (Courtesy Zanele Muholi)

'Aspelta: A Nubian King’s Burial Chamber'

The National Center of Afro-American Artists Museum

Permanent Collection

If you haven't been to what some Black Bostonians affectionately call "The Big Head Museum," you're missing out on an incredible experience. Last time I was there, I was lucky enough to get a tour of "Aspelta" from Edmund Barry Gaither, the director of the museum. While the MFA has its new "Ancient Nubia Now" exhibit, the NCAAA has had an exhibit for years that lifts the veil on the ancient nation of Nubia. It includes the "world’s only fully accurate recreation of a Nubian tomb interior" and other objects from the tomb and archaeological site. You can request a tour for yourself by contacting the museum.

A cast from Aspelta’s original sarcophagus containing a replica of his gilded coffin. (Courtesy National Center of Afro-American Artists Museum)
A cast from Aspelta’s original sarcophagus containing a replica of his gilded coffin. (Courtesy National Center of Afro-American Artists Museum)

'Adam Pendleton: Elements of Me'

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Through Sept. 27

The visually mesmerizing work of Adam Pendleton is now at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. While Pendleton's striking paintings and his other multimedia pieces have their own driving ethos, "Elements of Me" is in conversation with "Boston's Apollo," another exhibit in the museum chronicling a problematic history. Pendleton utilizes geometric abstraction to pen a commentary on blackness and language. If you're in town, catch him at a panel on Feb. 15 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Adam Pendleton, System of Display (Courtesy of the Artist. Photography: Andy Romer Photography)
Adam Pendleton, System of Display (Courtesy of the Artist. Photography: Andy Romer Photography)

'Jazz Greats: Classic Photographs from the Bank of America Collection'

Museum of African American History

Through March 30

If you're into photography, this exhibit is perfect for you. Photographs dating from the 1920s to the 1980s capture everyday and seminal moments from the lives of jazz legends, dancers and community members. A parallel exhibit,"Jazz Scene in Boston," pays homage to some of the legendary local greats who pushed the genre of music forward in new and progressive ways.

Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderly, Jimmy Cobb, 1959. (Courtesy Chuck Stewart Photography, LLC)
Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderly, Jimmy Cobb, 1959. (Courtesy Chuck Stewart Photography, LLC)

'Black History Matters 365: Now & Forever'

Lunder Arts Center

Through Feb. 23

Black alumni, undergraduate and graduate students at Lesley University are highlighted in this group exhibit curated by Jessica Johnson. "Black History Matters: 365" features the work of the students and alumni with practices ranging from textile work to photography. This exhibit revisits its predecessor, also named "Black History Matters: 365," created by Lesley University BFA and MFA alumnus Percy Fortini-Wright. This year's show features new works from Boston based artists like Tyahra Angus, Elisandra Lopes and Daniel Moss.

Cahel Saintil's “The Light” (Courtesy Lesley College of Art and Design)
Cahel Saintil's “The Light” (Courtesy Lesley College of Art and Design)

'Black Refractions: Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem'

Smith College Museum of Art

Through April 12

One of my biggest regrets when I visit New York is not making time for the Studio Museum in Harlem. But this Black History Month, all of us living in the Bay State have a chance to see highlights from their collection. The exhibit encapsulates almost 100 years of black history with close to 100 pieces in different mediums from the collection. From Kehinde Wiley to Njideka Akunyili Crosby, "Black Refractions" contains work from visionary black artists across disciplines. SCMA is the only museum in the Northeast that will house this exhibit so be sure to go check it out when you can.

'Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle'

Peabody Essex Museum

Through April 26

Jacob Lawrence painted history as you've never seen it before. Now, you can view his series of paintings, Struggle: From the History of the American People, at the Peabody Essex Museum. Lawrence is well known for being the first black artist to have artwork acquired by the Museum of Modern Art. He saw history as an intricate set of experiences, more nuanced than the annotated version written in books. Through his work, he painted a more complete version of history that gave voice and color to marginalized groups of people, like black people, Native Americans and women. This is the first time the series has been featured in a museum exhibit, and it's also the first time the paintings have been reunited in more than 60 years. Make some time to see this singular and monumental exhibit.

Panel 1, 1955, from Jacob Lawrence's "Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56. Courtesy Bob Packert/PEM
Panel 1, 1955, from Jacob Lawrence's "Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56. Courtesy Bob Packert/PEM

'Colored People Time: Mundane Futures, Quotidian Pasts, Banal Presents'

MIT List Visual Art Center

Through April 12

This exhibit gives color and life to a term that so many of us use jokingly nowadays. Curated by Meg Onli, "Colored People Time" upends our definitions of time. Through a carefully curated series of sections, this exhibit exposes how time can be a weapon, if wielded by oppressive systems. But in other ways, time can also be a tool for liberation. "Colored People Time" doesn't necessarily try to provide answers to weighty questions about systemic oppression. But it forces you to mine and search for your own answers. And it even provides you with study material, like Aria Dean's video lecture on acceleration theory and a free copy of Sutton Griggs' "Imperium in Imperio: A Study of the Negro Race Problem."

Sable Elyse Smith’s Coloring Book 33 and Pivot I. (Courtesy MIT List Visual Arts Center)
Sable Elyse Smith’s Coloring Book 33 and Pivot I. (Courtesy MIT List Visual Arts Center)

'Still I Rise'

Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art

Through May 25

If you don't mind a long drive, you'll find yourself cradled in the scenic beauty of western Massachusetts. Mass MoCa is a surprising and delightful gem of the landscape. Pulling from the timeless poetry of Maya Angelous, "Still I Rise" examines the portraiture (or lack thereof) of women of color. I'm especially interested in seeing the striking collage work of Deborah Roberts, who challenges traditional and Eurocentric standards of beauty. Beyond "Still I Rise," Mass MoCa has a wide range of other exhibits that'll make the road trip absolutely worth it.

Untitled, Deborah Roberts (Courtesy Philip Rogers/MassMOCA)
Untitled, Deborah Roberts (Courtesy Philip Rogers/MassMOCA)

'Black Histories, Black Futures'

Museum of Fine Art, Boston

Through June 2021

Regardless of my personal reservations about the MFA, I am very excited to "BlackHistories, Black Futures" this month. The museum worked with local youth empowerment organizations to create a program for youth interested in learning more about curatorial work. They learned how to research, interpret, and design the exhibition and "Black History, Black Futures" is the final result. Comprised of around 50 pieces, the exhibit covers black art throughout the 20th century and includes pieces from the MFA's permanent collection along with pieces from the National Center of Afro American Artists. This exhibit is at the MFA until next year so if you're unable to see it this month, you still have plenty of time. Don't forget that the museum is free on Wednesdays!

Richard Yarde, "Savoy: Leon & Willa Mae," 1989. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Richard Yarde, "Savoy: Leon & Willa Mae," 1989. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Arielle Gray Twitter Arts Engagement Producer
Arielle Gray is the Arts Engagement Producer for The ARTery. She manages its social media, events and curated content.

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