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Understanding Representation in the Gallery through Called to Create: Black Artists of the American South

Art has historically been dominated by wealthy white men of Western European countries. When someone is asked to name famous artists, the first names off their lips almost always fit this description: van Gogh, da Vinci, Monet, Matisse. Sometimes the names of Georgia O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo enter this conversation, but often only when speaking to someone who knows enough about art history. 

I believe that every artist is trying to tell a story. Perhaps an experience of theirs, a moment they remember, a dream they had, a color they relate to. In some way or another, abstract to realist, all art has some narrative or connotation. By this I mean that when looking at a piece of art, there is always a reaction, an assumed meaning by the audience. This reaction may be good or bad, one of adoration or disgust, but regardless, viewers look at the piece and feel something. That feeling is the story being told by the piece. 

What happens when these stories only come from one place? Only come from one group of people? Only demonstrate one type of experience? What about the viewers who don’t come from that place, group, or experience? Should people be expected to relate to pieces that never describe their situation? 

Artists from historically marginalized groups are not often represented in the curation of galleries, this means that viewers from historically marginalized groups are not represented either. Making artists of color a centerpiece in art history and curation is not only important, but necessary. It is also clear that of the American artists highlighted in galleries across the country, a preference is held for wealthy artists from the North — those that have access to more materials, time, and privilege to be artists. Acknowledging that art comes from every walk of life is a key part of viewing art in a more mindful and productive way. It can’t be expected that every visitor to a gallery or museum comes from one background, so why should the artists? 

The National Gallery of Art is working to highlight the works of Black artists from the South specifically through their current exhibition: Called to Create: Black Artists of the American South. This exhibition works directly with the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, a group that advocates for Black artists from the South being highlighted and centered in artist spaces. Pieces range from quilt work, to paintings, to sculpture and assemblage; a group of wonderfully colorful works of art. 

See this exhibition for yourself. Now on view at the National Gallery of Art until March 26, 2023 in the East Building. 

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