Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century

There exists a good number of publications and exhibition catalogues that deal exclusively with the history of Black artists in the United States. The pioneering volume was Modern Negro Art by James Porter (1943, 1969, 1992). Subsequent studies have included Art: African-American by Samella Lewis (1978), The Afro-American Artist by Elsa Honig Fine (1982), and, most recently, African American Art by Crystal A. Britton (1996).

But without exception this material is rare and expensive. Thames and Hudson are to be congratulated for bringing into existence a concise and universally affordable volume that appraises the work and modern history of Black artists in the United States, sparingly supplemented by a handful of Black artists from London.

…More than anything else, Powell’s study is a living study. He deals with artists from the past and historical movements not as static, fixed entities but as manifestations of creativity that have contemporary as much as historical significance. Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century darts here and there, relentlessly cross-referencing, relentlessly breathing, requiring us to consider all manner of issues. 

The study is overwhelmingly African-American, with a smattering of London-based Black artists thrown in. Black artists of the Caribbean are thinly represented, as are Black artists from Africa itself, though one or two – such as Uzo Egonu – are mentioned. In this regard the study aspires to be international, but is barely anything of the sort. Similarly, White artists such as Sue Coe are introduced and illustrated but, understandably perhaps, Powell dies not adequately deal with their treatment of the Black image. 

Thames and Hudson are to be congratulated for turning their attention to this neglected area of art history. Ultimately, however, we are left with the need for more – much more. When, for example, will Thames and Hudson commission a study that gives proper attention to the history and contemporary presence of Black artists in Britain, rather than treating it as an integrated appendage to what happens on the other side of the Atlantic? 

The above extracts are from “Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century”, Richard J. Powell, Thames and Hudson, 1997, book review by Eddie Chambers, Contemporary Visual Arts magazine, London, Issue 15, 1997: 84-85