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|African American Art in Today's Art Market
by Halima Taha
|During the month of February, America directs its attention to the lives and historic contributions of Americans of African descent. Consequently, the best of African American culture is celebrated and rediscovered. And, as with the cultures of the ancient Romans, Mayans, Aztecs and Egyptians, the most telling evidence of their life and values is the art and artifacts that African Americans create.
As the very material of history, art becomes currency and cultural property in the marketplace. And once in the open market it is subject to both scrutiny and praise. The prevailing issue among critics is whether there is a difference between American art in general and African American art in particular. For an objective observer, the primary "difference" is that until recently the art market has ignored a significant body of meritorious work by African American artists. Historically, the art world has presumed that African American artists' work is inherently unsophisticated and without merit, a judgment based on the color of the artists' skin rather than on their talent.
Most Americans recognize that one of black America's greatest contributions to the 20th century was jazz. The strong analogy between Earl "Fatha" Hines' rhythm of song and the Cubist innovations of the early 20th century is paralleled by the blues-drenched Pointillism of Count Basie and the angular Impressionism of Duke Ellington.
And increasingly, art enthusiasts are realizing that the same people who developed this sublime musical art form have also been creating its visual equivalent.
African American art owes part of its considerable appeal to its unique history, which combines both African and European influences. Ultimately, though, the issue is not how the work of African Americans compares to that of their European peers, but to what extent it shows the individual artists' ability to create images that viewers, regardless of their background, can relate to.
Collectively, the work of African American artists is not confined to one style or influence. These artists are no different than any other artist engaged in the creative struggle to express individual sensibility while simultaneously relating to the historical and cultural rhythms of time and place.
African American art in the United States has a unique global characteristic by virtue of the rich contributions by artists from the African continent, the Caribbean and the Americas. It is an exciting study of cultural diversity at its very best.
Excellent quality drawings, paintings and prints by established, mid-career and emerging artists can be found to fit any taste and budget. One needs nothing more than an interest, patience and a steady income to begin collecting African American art. And since the established marketplace is still trying to catch up to what has already grown, prices are still reasonable even for budding collectors.
And needless to say, despite the virtues of "Black History Month," the market for art produced by African American artists is not limited to the month of February. Contrary to America's unhealthy preoccupation with "color," its audience is beginning to catch up with the international community in its appetite for American artists of African descent. This is evident in the many international exhibitions featuring African American artists in Europe, Asia, Latin America and Australia.
In the final decades of the 20th century, we have seen several benchmark achievements by African American artists. In 1989 sculptor Martin Puryear was chosen to represent the United States at the 20th International Bienal in Sao Paolo, Brazil. He was the first African American to be accorded this honor and his installation earned first place. At the 1992 Dakar International Biennale, abstract painters Joe Overstreet, Mary Lovelace O'Neal, Mildred Thompson, Frank Bowling and Leonardo Drew represented the United States.
Mixed media artists Betye Saar and John Outterbridge were to participate in the 22nd Sao Paolo International Bienal and again selected to represent the United States in the inaugural South African Biennale in Johannesburg in 1995. In 1997, the White House acquired its first major work by an African American, a painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner. And in the same year, painter Robert Colescott became the first African American artist to represent the United States at the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Other African American artists who belong in any contemporary art collection include Terry Adkins, Benny Andrews, Romare Bearden, John Biggers, Camille Billops, Robert Blackburn, Elizabeth Catlett, Emilio Cruz, Allen Edmunds, Mel Edwards, Roland Freeman, Sam Gilliam, David Hammons, Freida High-Tsefagiorgis, Margo Humphrey, Richard Hunt, William H. Johnson, Gwen Knights, Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, Samella Lewis, James Little, Donald Locke, Kerry James Marshall, Richard Mayhew, Bob Thompson, Debra Priestly, Pheoris West, Philamonia Williamson and Deborah Willis.
Among the younger contemporary artists in the market are Kara Walker, Michael Ray Charles, Radcliffe Bailey, Chakaia Booker, Alison Saar, Tyrone Mitchell, Colin Chase, Gregory Coates, Lezley Saar, Helen Rasaran, Charlotte Ka, Philamonia Williamson and Fred Wilson.
Clearly, the only historic "difference" between American art and African American art is the perception of value and merit, which begs the question: Can the American art community (artists, dealers, collectors, curators, scholars and auction houses) undergo the same process of integration that American society has?
In response, serious collectors of American art recognize that historic gaps in their "American" art collections exist. Like Indiana Jones searching for buried treasures, collectors are excited to discover that for over 250 years African American artists have been producing what has now become the most compelling and affordable art in the market. This interest has stimulated increased sales, museum exhibitions, criticism and scholarship.
The best open secret for the American art collector is that this is a fortuitous time to seek and acquire the most valuable American art in the market -- fine art produced by Americans of African descent. Generally, art is a good investment of time, resources and money because the experience of collecting provokes self-reflective thought, emotion and a sense of adventure. Years ago, collectors who recognized the quality of artworks by artists like Bearden, Biggers, Catlett, Lawrence and Thompson were able to buy works for a few hundred dollars that are now worth considerably more.
As a 21st-century phenomenon, collecting African American art will no longer be hidden and merely manifest in a New Age of self-realization. I predict that the universal value of human joy, struggle and transcendence through artistic vision will remove cultural and esthetic veils of ignorance. Just as it is impossible to have an American landscape without a farm, it is impossible to be a true collector of American art without including American artists of African descent.
Finally, while we enjoy February as a hard-earned month to applaud the achievements of Black America, we must remember that its glory cannot exist without the efforts from March through January.
HALIMA TAHA is an art advisor and author of Collecting African American Art: Works on Paper and Canvas (Random House).
In the bookstore:
Collecting African American Art: Works on Paper and Canvas by Halima Taha
Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist
Michael Ray Charles