5 Powerful Stories on Black Art History

5 Powerful Stories on Black Art History

This February, we’re celebrating Black History Month at The Met. But for African Americans such as myself, every month is Black History Month. So we’re taking this opportunity to celebrate the Black art and identities that have been crucial in shaping art history for years—and will continue to shape it for many more to come. Here are just five of the many stories of Black art, culture, and history interwoven throughout The Met collection.

“How do you paint your own slave?” Painter Julie Mehretu analyzes Velázquez

“Looking at his expression I’m moved, almost to tears. That’s not often that a painting can do that.”

People of color are under-represented and under-recognized throughout Western art history, both as subjects and as artists. Rarer even is their appearance in dignified portraiture like that of Diego Velázquez, a seventeenth-century painter known for his depictions of Spanish royalty. Juan de Pareja was Velázquez’s enslaved assistant, and was later liberated to become a great painter in his own right. So—“How do you paint your own slave?” asks contemporary artist Julie Mehretu, and why? In this episode of The Artist Project, Mehretu, whose work challenges sociopolitical constructs of the past and present, helps unpack this painting’s emotional story.

Dancer Omari Mizrahi on Mark Bradford’s painting Duck Walk

Dancer Omari Mizrahi (Ousmane Wiles) received the status of Legend in the House of Mizrahi after ten years competing in the Vogue Ballroom scene in New York City. When asked to respond to Mark Bradford’s 2016 painting Duck Walk, Omari connects the evolution of voguing to the colorful movement in Bradford’s painting: “Voguing is evolving and the ballroom scene is evolving, but we’re trying to keep the history and the traditions alive as much as much as possible, and I think he’s doing that with abstraction.” As Omari spends more time with the work (and dances with it), we see the power in Bradford’s Abstract Expressionism and its connection to motion, performativity, and everyday life.

A poet’s response to Jean-Baptise Carpeaux’s Why Born Enslaved!

My name, for now, is my body
Soft in flesh but louder in stone.

In this video, Wendy S. Walters recites the poem she wrote in response to Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s 1873 sculpture Why Born Enslaved! The sculpture is one that is undeniably beautiful, and yet deals with the most painful moment in our history. It asks us to condemn the horror that is slavery, and yet this woman’s identity is still anonymous, her body still an object for our consumption. Walters’s poetic words confront this conflict in Why Born Enslaved! and help us imagine how this anonymous woman might have thought and felt.

Scholar David Driskell on Aaron Douglas’s painting Let My People Go

“Can a work of art reclaim history?”

David C. Driskell was a leading scholar of African American art and an artist whose work played a pivotal role in gaining mainstream recognition for the Black art community. His 1976 landmark exhibition, Two Centuries of Black American Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was the first of its kind and paved the way for scholarship on African American art, history, and culture.

In this video, Driskell uplifts the work of Aaron Douglas, a prominent visual artist of the Harlem Renaissance. Douglas’s painting Let My People Go (ca. 1935–39) evokes God’s command to Moses to lead the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt and into freedom, and relates this biblical story to the modern oppression of African Americans. Through Douglas’s painting, Driskell sheds light upon themes of liberation, enlightenment, and empowerment that resonate with the African American experience today.

Dariel Vasquez in “Belonging,” episode 11 of Met Stories

Visiting an institution like The Met—facing its massive staircase and a collection that spans millennia—it’s easy to feel like you don’t belong. Its art tells vast stories of countless cultures, and yet so often fails to tell the stories of people who look like us. This is how Dariel Vasquez, cofounder and executive director of Brothers@, felt even growing up in nearby Harlem. In this episode of Met Stories, Dariel talks about how he was able not only to overcome that feeling, but to fall in love with the art and make the space his own.

There is so much more content to check out and for all ages to enjoy. Head to our YouTube channel and Perspectives for more video and editorial pieces celebrating Black art and identities in conversation with The Met collection.

Editors’ Note: An earlier version of this article misstated that people of color are under-represented throughout art history. The article was corrected on March 5, 2021, to clarify the intended reference to Western art history specifically. The editors regret this error.