Artists, Exhibitions & Galleries to Inspire Deeper Engagement
Through the lens of art, we can learn, take inventory, and make meaningful and effective change, no matter the medium.
“I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.”—Toni Morrison.
Art can be a force for inspiration and change. When other efforts aren’t quite enough, art can cut through by offering new perspectives on complex issues facing society and the planet—and at it’s most powerful, become an agent for community activism and social change, a call for justice. Just as a painting has the ability to elicit a deep emotional response to a situation, person or place, a great photograph, too, can give new meaning to a historic moment, and never more so than when the artist behind the lens or canvas is emotionally invested in the subject matter. Through the prism of art, we can learn, take inventory, and make meaningful and effective change, no matter the medium.
It’s all here for us to explore and engage with—and nowhere more so than in New York where art of all styles and genres can be found everywhere from the streets to gallery walls, making our city a positively charged vehicle for change.
Here, we spotlight various artists, exhibitions, and galleries engaged in the social issues of our time, all of which are well worth checking out.
Kamoinge itself began in New York in 1963 when two separate groups of young Black photographers (pictured above) gathered to discuss using their work to address the civil rights movement and racial injustice faced by Black people in their communities. The early years saw members meeting regularly to offer critical perspectives on photographs depicting the troubling social upheaval of the time, along with emotional support and friendship.
Working Together (dates to be announced) showcases and celebrates the efforts of the early Kamoinge members during the first two decades of the collective during the heart of the Black Arts Movement. The exhibition features approximately 140 photographs by 15 members, among them, Ming Smith who was the only female member of the influential collective, and an honoree of this year’s Aperture Gala: Agents of Change, celebrating trailblazing women in photography.
99 Gansevoort Street, New York; T. (212) 570-3600
“With photography as my medium of choice, I became an artist-activist.” Born in Brooklyn, raised in the Bronx, Kwame Brathwaite knows firsthand the power of photography as a social change agent. He honed his craft as a tool to bring injustices related to race, class, and human rights to mainstream attention and in turn as a means to relay ideas, spark discussions, and tell stories of the fight for Black liberation. The photographer is also praised for his work celebrating Black identity and style as part of the Black is Beautiful movement, and is currently the subject of a traveling exhibition organized by Aperture Foundation in New York. The showcase features 41 mostly black-and-white pictures shot largely in the Bronx and Harlem in the 1950s and ’60s, along with clothing, jewelry, posters, and album covers.
Emory Douglas was the revolutionary artist of the Black Panther Party. His straightforward graphic style shaped the overall design of the party’s collateral including Black Panther, the weekly newspaper, along with prints, posters, cards, and even sculptures. This virtual exhibition, originally on show at the New Museum in 2009, showcases approximately 165 posters, newspapers, and prints created by Emory in the years 1967 through 1976 while he was a member of the party. His works provide an illuminating and visually engaging insight into the issues the Black Panthers fought for.
Emory Douglas: Black Panther is on show via the New Museum’s website.
“I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera.” Gordon Parks is, without doubt, one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century. From the early 1940s into the 2000s, Parks documented American life and culture, with a focus on race relations, poverty, civil rights, and urban life. As an artist, humanitarian, activist, and documentarian, Parks made a resounding impact on the world. His two-decade tenure as staff photographer and writer at Life Magazine saw him covering subjects related to racism and poverty but also fashion and entertainment with such notable subjects as Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, among countless others.
The Gordon Parks Foundation, located in Pleasantville, New York (about an hour’s drive from downtown) permanently preserves the work of the seminal photographer for us and future generations to cherish and learn from through exhibitions, books, and other events. The Foundation also supports artistic and educational activities that advance what Parks described as “the common search for a better life and a better world.”
48 Wheeler Avenue, Pleasantville, New York; T. (914) 238-2619
A rented loft at 2033 Fifth Avenue was the birthplace of The Studio Museum, founded in 1968 by a diverse group of artists, community activists, and philanthropists. Much has changed since then, but the Museum’s mission remains the same: to promote artists of African descent and work inspired and influenced by Black culture. Additionally, the Museum has become a gathering place where issues of art, politics, and society can be discussed and explored. Events and exhibitions have been paused for now, but keep an eye on the calendar for future happenings.
While Studio Museum’s building at 144 West 125th Street is closed for construction of its new museum, the Museum has taken up residency in a temporary programming space located at 429 West 127th Street.
Jack Shainman Gallery transplanted to New York from Washington, D.C. in 1984, at the apex of the ’80s East Village gallery scene before moving to SoHo and finally, finding its permanent home in Chelsea. From inception, the Gallery, founded by Jack Shainman and Claude Simard, has championed artists from diverse multicultural backgrounds who take social, political and cultural issues they’ve experienced firsthand and bring them to life in various art forms—among them, Nick Cave, Hayv Kahraman, Meleko Mokgosi, Richard Mosse, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Hank Willis Thomas, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.
In 2013, the Gallery opened two additional exhibition spaces, one in Chelsea at 524 West 24th Street, and another in a converted 30,000 square foot building in Kinderhook, New York, known as The School.
Currently on show: Tell Me A Story, I Don’t Care If It’s True, is a solo exhibition by Toyin Ojih Odutola, a Nigerian-American contemporary visual artist best known for her multimedia drawings and works on paper. The exhibition can be viewed online here. A percentage of sales of all works will be donated to various efforts including the Moms 4 Housing collective and the umbrella organization NDN Collective COVID-19 Response Project, under the Navajo Nation Relief Fund for First Nations.
513 West 20th Street New York; T. (212) 645-1701
As a gallerist and proponent of Black staffers in the arts, the work of Karen Jenkins-Johnson has made impactful moves towards greater diversity in the American arts community. In 1996, she opened her first gallery in San Francisco, and close to two decades later, opened a second space, Jenkins Johnson Projects, in a turn-of-the-century limestone building across the street from Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The Brooklyn gallery was created to give artists of color space to curate exhibitions by a diverse array of contemporary creators.
The gallery is closed for the moment due to the current public health crisis, however, cultural conversations are still taking place virtually. Follow Jenkins-Johnson on Instagram for events and news about upcoming exhibitions.
207 Ocean Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11225; T. (212) 629-0707
WORDS Edwina Hagon
PHOTOGRAPHY Anthony Barboza, Kamoinge Portrait, 1973. Courtesy of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Eric and Jeanette Lipman Fund. © Anthony Barboza photog