Black History in Museums and Galleries

February is the perfect time to be inspired and enriched by black artists past and present, and New York’s museums and galleries offer extraordinary exhibits. Here are some highlights for Black History Month.

“Faith Ringgold: American People”

From February 17 to June 5, The New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York

“I just decided that when someone says you can’t do something, do more,” Faith Ringgold once said. Fortunately, what this national treasure wanted to do was create art. At 91, Ringgold got his first major museum retrospective at the New Museum. His work is lyrical, uplifting, extremely honest, political, personal and deeply moving. Look for paintings, sculptures, text-based images, quilts, banners fashioned from Tibetan thangkas and more, spanning six decades of creative output.

From the civil rights movement of the 1960s to the feminist protests of the 70s and the Black Lives Matter movement of today, Ringgold’s work has challenged political situations, racial injustices, gender hierarchies and assumptions about the art over craftsmanship, all with intelligence, bravery and heart. Growing up in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance; having to study art education, as art classes were only offered to men; finding success as an artist; and giving back by supporting other women and artists of color find expression in Ringgold’s powerful work.

Toni Morrison’s Black Book hosted by Hilton Als

Until February 26, David Zwirner, 525 and 533 West 19th Street, New York

So many artists, writers and readers have been touched by the work of Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison that it would be almost impossible to identify or describe her influence. Still, some of America’s most prominent artists are offering their talents and vision for you to try. Garrett Bradley, Beverly Buchanan, Robert Gober, Gwendolyn Knight, Kerry James Marshall, Julie Mehretu, Martin Puryear, Amy Sillman, Bob Thompson, and James Van Der Zee, among others, are represented with works that respond to Morrison’s writing.

Seek out paintings and sculptures, photographs, documents and snippets of text collected by curator, critic and author, Hilton Als, to create a multidimensional portrait of a deeply significant writer. Along with the exhibition, David Zwirner presents “Dialogues: The David Zwirner Podcast”, which continues the conversation with a conversation with Als and activist author Angela Davis, discussing their friendship with Morrison and the impact of his work .

“The New Turn”

Through April 2, Hauser & Wirth, 542 West 22nd St., New York

Only recently has the extraordinary sophistication, creativity, ingenuity and improvisation woven into American quilts made by a group of black women been recognized. Like Paris in the 1920s and Greenwich Village in the 1950s, Gee’s Bend, Alabama was and continues to be a hotbed of artistic experimentation, through textile art.

Intricate and abstract patterns combined with traditional skills to create important works by artists until recently unknown. They are beginning to be known and exhibited in major museums and galleries, and their creations have inspired others. In “The New Bend,” hosted by Legacy Russell, 12 artists respond, “in tender dialogue with and in homage to the contributions of the quilters of Gee’s Bend Alabama.” Some artists use needle and thread, others use collages, text or found materials, but all express respect and harmony, and at the same time chart new personal paths based on their own experiences and concerns.

“The African Origin of Civilization”

Ongoing, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York

For an intriguing way to reconsider black history and creativity, head to the Met’s recently installed ongoing exhibition that combines Egyptian artwork with art from the rest of the African continent. Many studies have linked Egyptian culture to other ancient civilizations, such as Greece, Rome, and others along early trade routes. But this exhibition takes a look at the links between the culture that developed around the Nile and that of sub-Saharan Africa, associating distinct works and inviting us to look at them with fresh eyes.

Influences, relationships and the exchange of ideas across time and regions are highlighted through common materials, patterns and meanings. A timeline highlighting around 80 major cultural moments in African history surrounds the exhibit. Seeking to broaden the dialogue even further, curators have installed works from the Egyptian collection throughout the museum, creating startling juxtapositions in the galleries of ancient Near Eastern art, Greek and Roman art, medieval art and European painting.

James C. Tibbs