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Art as a reflection of history, freedom and imagination | GUEST COMMENTARY

Art as a reflection of history, freedom and imagination | GUEST COMMENTARY

Art is not merely a reflection of life; it encapsulates our history, embodies our present and envisions our future. Through contemporary art, artists employ a diverse array of mediums — painting, photography, video, sculpture and beyond — to articulate their perspectives on past events, current realities and future possibilities. This artistic expression is a testament to freedom, enabling artists to break conventional boundaries and foster innovative thinking.

As we reflect on historical narratives, artist Titus Kaphar emerges as one prominent figure. His innovative art space, Next Haven, located in New Haven, Connecticut, serves as a dynamic platform for artistic collaboration and community engagement. Through Next Haven, Kaphar champions emerging artists by providing studio space, mentorship programs and exhibition opportunities. In his Unseen series, showcased at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., Kaphar’s work, particularly “Beyond the Myth of Benevolence” (2014), offers a profound commentary on the hidden narratives of Black women, overshadowed by the glorified stories of founding fathers. Inspired by a Rembrandt Peale portrait of Thomas Jefferson, Kaphar’s painting reveals a Black woman’s image behind Jefferson’s portrait, prompting viewers to question their relationship and the untold stories of Black women in American history. This commentary elevates the work beyond figurative greatness. The depth laden in Kaphar’s narrative both assures viewers that he’s contemplating America’s original sin, and ensures that they are contextualizing it through the body of work.

Through contemporary photography, Devin Allen, a Baltimorean photographer, photojournalist, and activist, captures the essence of everyday struggles and triumphs. Allen’s documentary photograph “Baltimore Uprising,” featured on Time magazine’s May 2015 cover, propelled him to national attention following the Freddie Gray protests in 2015. His continued relevance was evidenced by another of his photographs gracing Time’s June 2020 cover during the George Floyd protests. Allen’s work, now part of the Smithsonian collection at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, serves as a powerful documentation of the African American experience, capturing moments of tension, resilience and the community. This dichotomy, as presented by Allen, is a stark reminder of the complexities of people. As Baltimore had unfairly received a national reputation loosely based on the city’s portrayal in HBO’s “The Wire,” community activists like Allen cast a light and lens on the city that residents call home. His images manage to capture sometimes jarring moments in time, to bottle the beauty and complexities of their subjects; even in seemingly challenged moments.

Then, turning toward the future, Ayana V. Jackson’s video works offer a visionary afrofuturist-esque perspective. Her latest exhibition, “From the Deep: In the Wake of Drexciya,” displayed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, marks a significant departure from her previous focus on historical archives. Inspired by the legend of Drexciya, a mythical underwater kingdom imagined by Detroit-based techno duo Drexciya, Jackson’s exhibition brings to life an immersive, feminist and sacred aquatopia. Through speculative fiction, Jackson confronts the racialization and sexualization of Black bodies, honoring the survivors of the transatlantic slave trade while envisioning a world of powerful, resilient women.

A testament to Jackson’s dedication to her craft is her becoming a master diver to authentically capture the essence of her imagined underwater subjects. This commitment to portraying her afrofuturist vision, along with her use of meticulously researched costumes designed in collaboration with artists from Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana and Angola, underscores the depth of an artist’s creativity and imagination. Curated by Karen Milbourne, the exhibition includes a rich array of media, from original photographs and videos to installations, animations, and costumes, offering a new way of seeing the world that demands we address our shared past and acknowledge sacred powers.

Art serves as a mirror to life, which is a reflection that is as much about looking back as it is about gazing forward. The present, fleeting as it may seem, is our bridge between the memories of the past and our aspirations for the future. Through the diverse mediums of painting, photography and video, artists like Titus Kaphar, Devin Allen and Ayana V. Jackson embody our history, capture our present, and imagine our future, offering us a lens through which we can view and understand the complex myriad of human experiences. Their work not only reflects the world as it is but also challenges us to envision the world as it could be. Thus, they empower art as a tool for mindfulness and remembrance, a powerful change agent for the present, and a catalytic force for envisioning the future.

Andrew S. Jacobson (andrew.s.Jacobson@icloud.com) is a lawyer, educator and art media entrepreneur. He founded The Law Offices of Andrew S. Jacobson, teaches the Business of Art at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), and founded art media company, Balmoré Art. Mr. Jacobson has no financial ties with, nor stands to benefit from, any of the artists featured in this op-ed.

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