According to the Smithsonian Institute, next Tuesday, its National Portrait Gallery will recognize and honor the life of Henrietta Lacks with the installation of a 2017 portrait by Kadir Nelson on the museum’s presentation wall on the first floor. The portrait was jointly acquired by the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture as a gift from Nelson and the JKBN Group LLC, and will be shared by the two museums. The painting will be on display at the Portrait Gallery through Nov. 4.
Lacks, a mother of five, lost her life to cervical cancer at age 31. During her treatment, doctors took cells from her body and discovered they lived long lives and reproduced indefinitely in test tubes. These “immortal” HeLa cells have since contributed to over 10,000 medical patents, aiding research and benefiting patients with polio, AIDS, Parkinson’s disease and other conditions.
Considering the history of medical testing on African Americans without their permission, the fate of Lacks raised questions about ethics, privacy and racism. Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 best-selling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, addressed those issues and later prompted Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions to adapt her story into a theatrical movie that first aired on HBO in 2017.
“It is fitting that Henrietta Lacks be honored at two Smithsonian museums, as each approaches American history from unique and complementary perspectives,” said Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery. “Lacks’ story presents moral and philosophical questions around issues of consent, racial inequalities, the role of women, medical research and privacy laws, providing rich platforms for historical understanding and public dialogue.”
“The National Museum of African American History and Culture has always felt that the story of Henrietta Lacks is a significant and important moment that deserved greater recognition,” said Lonnie Bunch, director of the museum.
Commissioned by HBO, Nelson used visual elements to convey Lacks’ legacy. The wallpaper features the “Flower of Life,” a symbol of immortality; the flowers on her dress recall images of cell structures; and two missing buttons allude to the cells taken from her body without permission.
Thousands more visitors gained entry to the popular Smithsonian museum on four Wednesdays last month, pushing officials to extend the program into May. April’s Walk-Up Wednesday crowds were larger than its Saturday crowds, typically the museum’s busiest day, according to Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas.
“Clearly it was successful,” St. Thomas said. “It allowed more visitors to enjoy the museum.”
There were 9,500 visitors on April 4, the middle of the busy Easter week, and about 8,900 the second Wednesday, April 11, St. Thomas said. The last two Wednesdays attracted 8,000 and 7,800 visitors, respectively. Those numbers exceeded visitor tallies on all four Saturdays in April, which averaged 6,825.
Visitor numbers also eclipsed Tuesday totals last month, which ranged from 4,500 and 7,000, St. Thomas said.
Since its opening Sept. 24, 2016, the newest Smithsonian museum has welcomed more than 3.5 million visitors. It has used timed passes to control crowd size and reduce lines. St. Thomas said officials were not yet considering eliminating all passes.
The museum has distributed thousands of free passes on the first Wednesday of each month — on May 2 it will distribute passes for August — but many are not used. About 3,000 visitors on each Wednesday in April had advance passes and were given priority entry, according to St. Thomas. No visitors were turned away.
In addition to advance passes, the museum distributes same-day passes online daily at 6:30 a.m. Walk-up admission is available after 1 p.m. weekdays, if capacity allows.
The cultural impact of Black Panther has continued to increase in magnitude since its Feb. 16 release. Shattering records with each tick of the clock, the Marvel film gained historic steam with praise from moviegoers and positive reviews. Now, while the superhero reel plans to surpass the Titanic, it aims to break yet another record, this time in Saudi Arabia.
According to Variety, Black Panther will premiere on April 18 in the Middle Eastern country, dissolving its 35-year ban on movie theaters. The debut will be accompanied by a gala and take place in the newly-constructed AMC theater, based in Riyadh.
A plan to cease the cinema ban occurred in Dec. 2017, CNN reports. The Saudi Ministry of Culture gave AMC the green light to begin rolling out 30 theaters across the country, possibly projecting a $1 billion revenue stream for Saudi Arabia’s economy.
The billion-dollar movie currently holds the title as the highest-grossing superhero motion picture. Upon its release, director Ryan Coogler wrote an open letter thanking fans for their insurmountable support. “For the people who bought out theaters, who posted on social about how lit the film would be, bragged about our awesome cast, picked out outfits to wear, and who stood in line in theaters all over the world,” he wrote, “all before even seeing the film.”
TheNational Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) announces the acquisition of two works by Mildred Thompson (1939–2003) in celebration of the museum’s 30th-anniversary year. With a career spanning more than four decades, Thompson created paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures with a signature approach to abstraction.
Inspired by the Atlanta-based Thompson’s inclusion in the recent exhibition Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today, the Georgia Committee of NMWA purchased a painting from her “Magnetic Fields” series for the museum. Camille Ann Brewer gifted a second work by Thompson to the museum to honor the memory of the artist.
“We are thrilled that donor Camille Ann Brewer and the Georgia Committee—one of 20 outreach committees around the world that support NMWA—have both donated to the museum’s collection incredible works by Mildred Thompson from the earlier and later parts of her career,” said NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling. “It is an honor to announce this gift today, on her birthday, and during the museum’s third annual #5WomenArtists social media campaign, which aims to increase awareness of gender inequity in the art world.”
After living in Europe to escape the racism and sexism that she had experienced in the United States, Thompson moved back permanently and began her series of “Magnetic Fields” paintings in the early 1990s. The painting gifted to NMWA, as well as the series as a whole, reflects Thompson’s quest to create a personal visual language for depicting phenomena and effects not visible to the naked eye. She studied, and had a longstanding interest in, quantum physics, cosmology and theosophy. Through her art, she sought to connect scientific knowledge and metaphysical philosophy.
Thompson’s interest in scientific phenomena and theories ran counter to expectations of what ‘black art’ should be during her lifetime, causing her work to be chronically overlooked by critics, galleries and museums. Today, thanks to the dedicated efforts of her partner, Donna Jackson, and estate curator, Melissa Messina, her works are finally gaining the recognition that eluded them for so long.
In “Magnetic Fields,” the composition exudes a frenetic, pulsating energy of vivid yellows, reds and blues thanks to Thompson’s command of color theory. Simultaneously, her color choices imbue the composition with an emotional exuberance that complements its scientific inspiration.
Even before the Magnetic Fields exhibition opened, Brewer was inspired to gift the second work by Thompson to NMWA. That work, an untitled “wood picture” from Thompson’s European period, along with the newly gifted painting, mark important additions to the museum’s collection. Thompson’s wood pictures, which she began making in the 1960s while living in Germany, mark the artist’s decision to focus solely on non-representational art-making. Thompson’s use of found wood segments assembled into deceptively simple compositions brought about her first mature series of non-representational sculptural works. Made with salvaged wood, these works combine the aesthetic of Minimalism and found-object assemblage techniques like those of Louise Nevelson. With the addition of these works to the collection, NMWA is able to expand the narrative surrounding abstract artists as well as artists of color.
NMWA is located at 1250 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. It is open Mon.–Sat., 10 a.m.–5 p.m. and Sun., noon–5 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for visitors 65 and over and students, and free for NMWA members and youths 18 and under. Admission is free the first Sunday of each month. For information, call 202-783-5000, visit nmwa.org, Broad Strokes Blog, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
CHARLESTON – A swift, cool breeze lifts off the Cooper River. It frisks through the crowns of the towering palm trees that line the paved walkway. Small boats wobble in the calm waters on the east side of the Charleston peninsula. A neatly manicured patch of grass provides a tranquil spot for a blanket and a book. In the distance, the steel cables of the Ravenel Bridge stretch in splendor. To the right, flags fly over Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.
Soon, this waterfront will be home to the International African American Museum. The $100 million, 40,000-square foot facility will bridge solemn history and modern magnificence. It will offer captivating exhibits, engaging events and a breathtaking view of the Charleston Harbor.
However, this land is more than prime riverfront real estate. It connects deeply to the heritage the museum aims to commemorate. Ship voyage records reveal that nearly half of the enslaved Africans who were shipped to North America disembarked in Charleston. Many slaves took their first steps on American soil on this patch of land, which was once the largest wharf in North America. Historians estimate that more than 90 percent of all African-Americans can trace at least one ancestor to this land.
Eighteen years ago, former Charleston mayor Joe Riley pledged to build an iconic museum that honors that heritage and illuminates the achievements cultivated from that regrettable past. Since then, 37 other museums dedicated to African-American history and culture have been constructed. However, IAAM supporters contend that this land grants it a distinctive, visceral magnetism.
Riley’s vision has attracted support from city, county and state government, local business owners, national organizations and historians. Yet, Riley and IAAM chief executive officer and president Michael Boulware Moore (who is the great-great-great grandson of Civil War Hero and Congressman Robert Smalls) must raise millions more before construction can begin.
Moore’s passion for this project is personal. When he walks this pristine patch of grass, he can hear the shackles rattling as they dragged against the wooden planks. He can see his great-great-great-great grandmother walking across the wharf. “We know that she landed here. That’s sort of my original anchor to Charleston. It’s really deep emotional territory for me,” Moore said. “Every time I go, it hits me.”
“I understand the history that occurred there,” he said. “I understand tens of thousands of people, including my ancestors, disembarked there in chains. I am confronted by the emotions that must have been felt on that space and just by the enormity of what happened.”
The land’s significance
This serene site was once the epicenter of America’s ugliest enterprise. Nearly 250 years ago, this area was merely brackish marsh. Charleston merchant Christopher Gadsden converted it into the largest wharf in North America. It covered 840 feet from the Charleston Harbor to East Bay Street, between what are now Calhoun and Laurens Streets. Initially, Gadsden’s Wharf primarily serviced the rice industry. Eventually, it became a hub of the international slave trade. From 1783 to 1808, approximately 100,000 enslaved African men, women and children were forced into ships and carried on a voyage through darkness across the Atlantic Ocean into the Charleston Harbor.
According to historian and former South Carolina Historical Society archivist Nic Butler, on Feb. 17, 1806, the City Council of Charleston passed an ordinance stipulating that all vessels importing enslaved Africans port in Gadsden’s Wharf. Enslaved Africans were stored like crops in a wharf warehouse. Shackled to despair, hundreds of men, women and children died from fevers or frostbite. They were buried unceremoniously in a nearby mass grave. Those who survived those subhuman conditions were advertised in newspapers, sold and dispersed.
“Some have described it as the enslaved Africans’ Ellis Island,” University of South Carolina history professor Bobby Donaldson said. “If you can imagine people who endured and survived the Middle Passage from West Africa across the Atlantic, Gadsen’s Wharf is where they see land, where they see a dark and unknown future.”
Slaves were taken to different corners of the fledgling country. They toiled in fields to quicken the economy and fostered a lineage of influential American inventors, educators, soldiers, politicians, writers, philosophers, entrepreneurs, entertainers, activists and athletes.
Last week, model Anok Yai made history at Prada‘s Fall 2018 show during Milan Fashion Week.
The 19-year-old became the second black model to ever open a Prada show. The first was Naomi Campbell back in 1997. Yes, it’s been over two decades since a woman of color opened a Prada runway.
Anok took to Instagram to thank Miuccia Prada, along with her team, for the opportunity, writing, “Can’t believe I’m the first black woman to open for Prada since queen @iamnaomicampbell, forever grateful.”
The model’s monumental runway walk is especially incredible as she was just discovered last fall while attending Howard University’s homecoming. Weeks later, she signed with Next Models. And just one month ago, she made her runway debut at Prada’s Menswear Fall 2018 show.
Of course, the fact that Prada hasn’t cast a woman of color to open its show in over two decades is problematic in itself. In the past, the brand has come under scrutiny for its lack of diversity both on the runway and in its campaigns. Hopefully, Anok opening the Fall 2018 show is an indication the Italian fashion house is headed in the right direction when it comes to diversity.
Extremely slowly, but surely, more and more brands are recognizing the importance of casting diverse runways. This season’s Fall 2018 shows at New York Fashion Week marked the most racially diverse of all time—with women of color accounting for 37.3% of all castings. Still, there’s a lot of work to be done.
With the unveiling Monday at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. of the official presidential likenesses of Barack Obama and the former first lady, Michelle Obama, this city of myriad monuments gets a couple of new ones, each radiating, in its different way, gravitas (his) and glam (hers).
Ordinarily, the event would pass barely noticed in the worlds of politics and art. Yes, the Portrait Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution, owns the only readily accessible complete collection of presidential likenesses. But recently commissioned additions to the collection have been so undistinguished that the tradition of installing a new portrait after a leader has left office is now little more than ceremonial routine.
The present debut is strikingly different. Not only are the Obamas the first presidential couple claiming African descent to be enshrined in the collection. The painters they’ve picked to portray them — Kehinde Wiley, for Mr. Obama’s portrait; Amy Sherald, for Mrs. Obama — are African-American as well. Both artists have addressed the politics of race consistently in their past work, and both have done so in subtly savvy ways in these new commissions. Mr. Wiley depicts Mr. Obama not as a self-assured, standard-issue bureaucrat, but as an alert and troubled thinker. Ms. Sherald’s image of Mrs. Obama overemphasizes an element of couturial spectacle, but also projects a rock-solid cool.
It doesn’t take #BlackLivesMatter consciousness to see the significance of this racial lineup within the national story as told by the Portrait Gallery. Some of the earliest presidents represented — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson — were slaveholders; Mrs. Obama’s great-great grandparents were slaves. And today we’re seeing more and more evidence that the social gains of the civil rights, and Black Power, and Obama eras are, with a vengeance, being rolled back.
On several levels, then, the Obama portraits stand out in this institutional context, though given the tone of bland propriety that prevails in the museum’s long-term “America’s Presidents” display — where Mr. Obama’s (though not Mrs. Obama’s) portrait hangs — standing out is not all that hard to do.
Mr. Wiley, born in Los Angeles in 1977, gained a following in the early 2000s with his crisp, glossy, life-size paintings of young African-American men dressed in hip-hop styles, but depicted in the old-master manner of European royal portraits. More recently he has expanded his repertoire to include female subjects, as well as models from Brazil, India, Nigeria and Senegal, creating the collective image of a global black aristocracy.
In an imposingly scaled painting — just over seven feet tall — the artist presents Mr. Obama dressed in the regulation black suit and an open-necked white shirt, and seated on a vaguely thronelike chair not so different from the one seen in Stuart’s Washington portrait. But art historical references stop there. So do tonal echoes of past portraits. Whereas Mr. Obama’s predecessors are, to the man, shown expressionless and composed, Mr. Obama sits tensely forward, frowning, elbows on his knees, arms crossed, as if listening hard. No smiles, no Mr. Nice Guy. He’s still troubleshooting, still in the game.
His engaged and assertive demeanor contradicts — and cosmetically corrects — the impression he often made in office of being philosophically detached from what was going on around him. At some level, all portraits are propaganda, political or personal. And what makes this one distinctive is the personal part. Mr. Wiley has set Mr. Obama against — really embedded him in — a bower of what looks like ground cover. From the greenery sprout flowers that have symbolic meaning for the sitter. African blue lilies represent Kenya, his father’s birthplace; jasmine stands for Hawaii, where Mr. Obama himself was born; chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago, reference the city where his political career began, and where he met his wife.
Mrs. Obama’s choice of Ms. Sherald as an artist was an enterprising one. Ms. Sherald, who was born in Columbus, Ga., in 1973 and lives in Baltimore, is just beginning to move into the national spotlight after putting her career on hold for some years to deal with a family health crisis, and one of her own. (She had a heart transplant at 39.) Production-wise, she and Mr. Wiley operate quite differently. He runs the equivalent of a multinational art factory, with assistants churning out work. Ms. Sherald, who until a few years ago made her living waiting tables, oversees a studio staff of one, herself.
At the same time, they have much in common. Both focused early on African-American portraiture precisely because it is so little represented in Western art history. And both tend to blend fact and fiction. Mr. Wiley, with photo-realistic precision, casts actual people in fantastically heroic roles. (He modifies his heroizing in the case of Mr. Obama, but it’s still there.) Ms. Sherald also starts with realism, but softens and abstracts it. She gives all her figures gray-toned skin — a color with ambiguous racial associations — and reduces bodies to geometric forms silhouetted against single-color fields.
On Saturday, the Houston Museum of African American Culture opened an exhibit dedicated to the life and death of Sandra Bland.
The 28-year old was pulled over for a minor traffic violation, arrested, and found dead in her Waller County, Texas jail cell three days after in July 2015. Although her death was ruled a suicide, activists and others criticized the jail’s handling of Bland.
On opening night, visitors were able to walk through the exhibit featuring smiling images from Bland’s life before sitting in a makeshift car to watch footage from the traffic stop that ultimately led to her death.
For her mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, sitting in that car was the hardest part of the exhibit. “It felt like when that officer was walking, he was walking towards you,” she told local station KTRK.
Reed-Veal added that she felt like her daughter was telling her story even after her death. “People seeing this exhibit should say to themselves hold on, I’m going to think a little differently about the way I do things—with my interactions with everyone but more so police officers,” she said.
Touching the lives of those who visit
The artists who worked on the exhibit clearly did their homework. Many of the pieces give a glimpse into the type of woman Bland was at the time of her death. “I’m discovering we were very similar. She was a woman who took over 50 selfies, she had very healthy self-esteem, was in a sorority, educated, young had a future ahead of her,” said Lee Carrier, the designer behind the central mural in the exhibit.
Visitors have also been blown away by the emotion of the exhibit.
“The struggles that African American’s face, whether light, brown, or black as it’s called, our realities are sometimes different than our counterparts,” visitor Erinn Miller told the station. “It doesn’t matter if you’re educated or not educated, from the city or the country. Sandra Bland was a classic case.”
Visitors will be able to see the exhibit from now until Feb. 28.
Baltimore is celebrating a very special Black History Month this year in honor of Frederick Douglass’ 200th birthday. The city will host a series of events to share the abolitionist’s life and work. Though Baltimore is where Douglass spent his childhood as a slave until 1838, it is also where he learned to read and later returned to build his “Douglass Place” homes in Fell’s Point, a row of houses meant for African-American renters during the Civil War. While the Bicentennial of Frederick Douglass’ Birth is a year-long celebration, the month of February will see many events that celebrate the rich African-American heritage and culture of Baltimore:
The Maryland abolitionist’s birthday has become Frederick Douglass Day and its 200th Anniversary Celebration will be in full swing on February 10 from 12 – 4 p.m. at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum. With activities including readings of his speeches by living history re-enactors and a children’s art and story hour about his life, the event is perfect for people of all ages to engage and learn about Douglass’ impact on history.
The National Great Blacks In Wax Museum will hold lectures and seminars on Frederick Douglass, as well as host two special events on February 15 – the unveiling of a new wax figure of Frederick Douglass and a book signing with his great-great-grandson, Kenneth B. Morris, who recently published a Frederick Douglass biography.
Did you know that Frederick Douglass liked to quote Othello in his own writing? Chesapeake Shakespeare Theatre in downtown Baltimore hosts free monthly open houses, and this month, the discussions will center around Douglass and Ira Aldridge, an African-American actor who rose to fame performing as Othello in Douglass’ time. Bring your own lunch on February 13 from 12:30 – 1:30 p.m. and join the discussion on the commonality of these iconic figures.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art has acquired a significant group of works by self-taught African American artists, deepening the museum’s already rich holdings of so-called outsider artists and strengthening its overall collection of art by American people of color. The 24 works include three major assemblages by Thornton Dial, an iron and steel worker, pipe fitter, carpenter, and house painter who lived in Bessemer, Ala., near Birmingham.
The museum also acquired a number of works from Dial’s friends and relatives, and 15 quilts made by several generations of women from Gee’s Bend, a rural Alabama community near Selma. The quilts and assemblages were part of the 1,200-work collection of the Atlanta-based Souls Grown Deep Foundation, an organization devoted to documenting, preserving, and promoting the work of self-taught African American artists from the Deep South.“I think it’s a spectacular addition to the collection and another piece to add to our growing holdings of work by self-taught artists,” Timothy Rub, head of the museum, said Wednesday.
Rub said the acquisition, a partial gift from Souls Grown Deep and partial purchase, “fills in … an important piece of the story of American art, broadly understood.”
Beyond saying the museum was able to cover the discounted cost of the works with its own funds, Rub declined to discuss the purchase price or the discount provided by the foundation to facilitate the acquisition.
Maxwell L. Anderson, president of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, said the acquisition fit with the organization’s overall strategy for gaining wider appreciation for the work of the artists. He noted that now “important works by African American artists who represent a distinctive voice in contemporary art are represented in [the Art Museum’s] permanent collection.”
“Partnering with the PMA and a growing number of other museums will ensure that the work and history of these artists is accessible to a broad audience,” said Anderson.
Ann Percy, the museum’s curator of drawings, said the museum considered the works to be representative of a “huge part of American art.” “But we didn’t have any,” she said, referring to pieces by self-taught or outsider African American artists from the Deep South. “We think it’s an important aspect of American art that we didn’t have represented in the collection.”
Thornton Dial, who died two years ago, was first inspired as a teenager by the “yard art” displayed on lawns throughout the area. He began constructing sculptural assemblages out of whatever he could find, strongly motivated to express his ideas and feelings about history, slavery, racism, politics, war, spiritual matters, economic dislocation, and homelessness.
The three Dial assemblages acquired by the museum – The Last Day of Martin Luther King (1992), High and Wide (Carrying the Rats to the Man) (2002), and The Old Water (2004) – combine found materials such as steel, tin, wood, carpet, barbed wire, upholstery, driftwood, goat hides, metal pans, broken glass, a stuffed-animal backpack, mop cords, and a broom.
Dial’s assemblages, and the two assemblages each by Lonnie Holley and Ronald Lockett, plus one piece by Hawkins Bolden and another by sculptor Bessie Harvey, provide ample evidence of the “profound subjects” at the heart of the work by these artists.
The celebrated quilt makers of Gee’s Bend have been practicing the art since the 19th century. They have became known in the 21st century as the result of two major traveling exhibitions: “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend,” in 2002, and “Gee’s Bend, the Architecture of the Quilt,” which visitors to the art museum enthused over in 2008.
Work by Mary Lee Bendolph and her daughter Louisiana P. Bendolph is contained within the acquisition. Quilt makers now represented in the collection are Delia Bennett, Nellie May Abrams, Annie E. Pettway, Henrietta Pettway, Loretta Pettway, Martha Jane Pettway, Sue Willie Seltzer, Andrea P. Williams, Irene Williams, Magdalene Wilson (1898-2001), and Nettie Young. The 15 quilts were made between 1930 and 2005. Rub said the works will be on display in the near future.