Creators Out of Absence: The Sacred Materials of Black Artists | Sojourners

Creators Out of Absence: The Sacred Materials of Black Artists

Image via Candace Sanders. 

Recently, I have been drawn to collecting photos of art in museums created by black artists. Creative manifestations through sculptures, paintings, videos, photographs, mixed media, experiential exhibits, collage, and other forms, have prompted me to reflect on the sacred nature of the materials used in the process of creation.

In a world where black history has been erased, suppressed, and destroyed, what do material items mean for black people, black memory, and black celebration?

Video artist and cinematographer Arthur Jafa, known contemporarily for Solange’s "Cranes in the Sky" and "Don’t Touch My Hair" videos, spoke to Dazed about the concept of art created from absence.

“All that rich, thousand-year-old tradition of material expressivity, African sculpture, paintings, that's lost. Even though it ends up redefining Western art practice. But when the slave trade happens, when the Middle Passage happens, we can't take those things with us on the slave ship, right? Because they're material.” Jafa said. “So much of Afro-American creativity is in the space which I term ‘immaterial invention’. I mean a lot of it is not material invention, which is why the whole idea of Black people entering the arts arena is so charged.”

Black Americans have often created art birthed out of this legacy of absence. Art galleries have served as my reconciling reminder of the reality of this history. 

The tangibility that material expressions provide to represent the immaterial allow me to celebrate the beauty of this space of invention and creativity. Physical artifacts such as paintings, writings, and photos show proof of our existence and call us to examine the way we understand ourselves and each other.

As often as black people are portrayed and seen as sub-human, art is one space where we can realize the multiple dimensions of our blackness.

But as we center our gaze on this artwork, we have to ask ourselves — even as members of the African diaspora — what assumptions are we making about the art and where do those assumptions stem from?

Being physically confronted with these pieces of artwork makes me aware of my own internal biases. What kind of art signals to me whether or not a black artist created it or not? I get confused by my own subconscious perceptions when looking at a piece of work that doesn’t immediately correlate to my image of "black art." It is a nagging reminder of the effect harmful stereotypes, popular media narratives, and portrayals throughout history have had, and how they require me to unlearn what I’ve designated black art to be in my mind.

The range of artworks I’ve come across, whether in smaller galleries or the Smithsonians, has reinforced that as black people, we are dimensional. The way we construct ourselves within our chosen mediums is important to recognizing the dimensionality of who we are. As we create from piecing together memories and stories, we capture ourselves through the conceptual depth and symbolism present in our work. Dimension is recognized through subject matter and in physical form, and the selection of material and medium is important to conveying our message. Our imagination transposes our immaterial invention into something material and physically grounding.

At "Inter | Sectionality: Diaspora Art from the Creole City," a gallery show at George Washington University, a triptych of video portraits faces the viewer, while a woman gazes from the screens. Aptly named Selfie, the installation by Petrona Morrison cuts between different shots of the woman moving and looking into the camera while fixing her hair and face. When I look at her, I see my sister, my cousins, my best friend. In this specific mode of communication, I see how it accomplishes what a still image couldn’t. It places her in movement as a contemporary being, animated by her breath and body. She is represented by her physical dimensionality as she moves within the screens. In all rotations, she has presence, depth, shape.

In the "Evan-Tibbs Collection" at the National Gallery of Art lives a piece titled Reflection by artist Hughie Lee-Smith. On its horizontal canvas, a black man stands facing the water with his back turned to the viewer. He appears to be in deep contemplation as he foregrounds the expansive body of water in front of him. On the land, he is nestled between upright poles, and to his right are boats along the shore. Immediately I was drawn to this piece and its reminiscence of a memory as captured by the soft brush strokes of oil paint.

At the "Outwin 2019: American Portraiture Today" gallery in the National Portrait Gallery, performance artist Sheldon Scott’s latest piece, Portrait, number 1 man (day clean ta sun down) directly connects the viewer to the subject matter by combining video and physical materials. A video portrait of a man hulling rice grain sits as a backdrop to a long burlap cloth filled with hulled rice in the gallery. Scott says, “From sun up until sun down, the body will hull and winnow rice grains, then place the hulled grains, one by one, on a tomb-like vessel lined with burlap until the weight and value of the vessel equals that of the body laboring to fill it. This rhythmic, inane process will communicate the transactional and the incalculable.”

When who you are has been defined by outside representatives, to keep from slipping away you have to grasp onto what is tangible, what is real, what you know to be you. There is a consistent reconciliation of self, from you to your audience, you to your work, and you to yourself.

Through the material choices of black artists, the diversity of the diaspora is established as a polylith, full of beauty and diverse experiences. Every day, black artists channel their individuality through manipulation and creation within their artistic expressions. Seeing this sparks curiosity within me as I think about the way God has uniquely positioned black people in this era of humanity to be creators out of absence, to exist in the space of immaterial invention just as God does in Genesis when the Earth is being created. I want to take more time in my own life to celebrate the beauty from absence that appears in the landscape of creation, and the blackness that fuels it all, this month and every month.