By Nadine Matthews, Special to the AFRO
Art critic Antwaun Sargent was present at the National Portrait Gallery this past February as the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama were unveiled. “There were audible gasps, particularly when Amy’s work was unveiled,” Sargent said. “Amy was considered more of a local artist. Being in that room and feeling the weight of history as two Black women sat on the world’s stage to unveil a portrait that will go down in the annals of history is just unforgettable!”
Amy Sherald, of course, is the Baltimore artist who painted the portrait of Michelle Obama. Sargent spoke with her soon after the unveiling ceremony and she explained her creative choices. “She spoke about how she was interested in creating this grayscale image of Michelle Obama because it speaks to a history of photography where that was the only tool African-Americans had to represent themselves. She wanted to signal a shift in American consciousness in that we now paint African Americans.”
Art critic Antwaun Sargent studied politics at Georgetown before discovering a penchant for Black art and its surrounding culture. (Courtesy Photo)
Sargent has been writing about culture since he worked at Philosopher magazine at his North Side Chicago high school. “It was,” he says, “Just a really great platform to get our ideas out there.” Sargent nevertheless originally planned to become a lawyer. He went to Georgetown University where he studied politics, interned for Hillary Clinton, and worked for the editorial board for their newspaper, The Hoya.
The pull of Black culture, and Black art in particular was strong and Sargent found himself writing increasingly about Black art and the culture surrounding it. A visit to the Brooklyn Museum in 2012 was pivotal. ”I walked into the Brooklyn Museum and there was a big Mickalene Thomas survey and I immediately felt a connection. It reminded me of ideas I knew; of sisterhood and brotherhood and trying to build community. I was like, ‘Where can I find more of this?” Sargent looked around and, not finding much, decided to fill that vacuum. “I was like, ‘I want to write about these artists and I want to know and have conversations with these types of artists.’”
Since then, Sargent’s work has appeared in such publications as the New York Times, Vice, Forbes, and W Magazine. His work at once enlightens readers about the wealth of talented Black artists and thinkers surrounding the Black art world, and also revealing the persistent structural racism upon which that world rests.
One subject that has gripped the art world as a whole over the past few years, with much of the attention aimed at the Baltimore Museum of Art, is the subject of deaccession. The earliest documented professional African-American painter, Joshua Johnson, lived in Baltimore in the 1700s and in 1939, the Baltimore Museum of Art became one of the first institutions to hold a major exhibit of African-American art so it is poetic that it is at the center of this social shift.
In the practice of deaccession, art deemed less relevant is sold off in order to acquire art with more relevance. Lately, proceeds from many such sales tend to be applied to procurement of work by artists from underrepresented groups, including White women.
Sargent recalls a conversation he had with the museum’s director. “He told me, ‘The reason we’re doing this is because this city is 63 percent Black and we want the museum to reflect the people it serves.’ That’s a radical position for a museum like the Baltimore Museum of Art.” Sargent also believes it was a beneficial move. “Why not, in an effort to diversify their collections, sell off some of that work. I think it’s a better museum because of it.”
Currently in the process of writing his first book, which will be about Black photography, Sargent also has his opinions on the recent appointments of White women to key positions in institutions of Black culture such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). “Timothy Anne , who I know, is a part of a team of curators overseeing the music section, but the person who runs that team is a Black woman. In this moment, we need to be particular about the facts. We need to be honest about that situation. It was somewhat misrepresented.”
That situation Sargent believes, is different from say, the hiring of Kristen Windmuller-Luna at Brooklyn Museum to curate its African art collection. “They do great work but in terms of people who hold power in that institution, that institution is primarily White. In situations like that we have to think, “Why isn’t it doing more to reflect its community? Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum, is doing a wonderful job at the museum but everyone has room for improvement.”