Art Pick!: We Are Contemporary, Again: Black Artists at the Baltimore Museum of Art

Art Pick!: We Are Contemporary, Again: Black Artists at the Baltimore Museum of Art

Last fall the Baltimore Museum of Art unveiled its new Contemporary Wing. Opening weekend the museum was jam-packed with visitors reveling in the new space. The much-awaited re-installation features vibrant galleries, significant new acquisitions, and a diverse array of art works on view. Beloved pieces by Olafur Eliasson, Andy Warhol, and others were brought out to play with provocative additions from 21st-century artists such as Sarah Sze, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Sarah Oppenheimer.

Alison Saar, “Strange Fruit”

Among those currently featured in the Contemporary Wing are some well-known and cutting-edge black artists, including Nari Ward, David Hammons, Alison Saar, Joyce Scott, Julie Mehretu, Glenn Ligon, Gary Simmons,Alma Thomas, and Elizabeth Catlett. Their works are wide-ranging, and visually exciting. Ward’s “Live Ball” is made from shoelaces; Hammon’s offers a composition with literal traces of Harlem dirt; and Saar’s sculpture of a life-sized black woman hanging by her feet (“Strange Fruit”) dangles precariously in the middle of a gallery.

A special bonus is a temporary installation of South African artist Zwelethu Mthethwa’s color-rich photographs—portraits, landscapes, interiors—in the museum’s Front Room, a new project space for rotating exhibitions. The BMA’s contemporary art curator Kristen Hileman has worked to acquire one of his photographs from the installation. She has also led or supported acquisitions of works by Hank Willis Thomas, Nari Ward, and Julie Mehretu since joining the museum in 2009.Official press about the re-installation notes that “the BMA’s distinctive contemporary art collection features a significant number of works by women, artists of color, and both emerging and established artists whose art makes a profound social statement.” For this reason, the installation needed to reflect the breadth and history of the museum’s collecting initiatives. Indeed, one of the first exhibitions of “contemporary” art by African Americans in the United States happened at the BMA in 1939. Curated by Harlem Renaissance-era scholar and Howard University professor Alain Locke, “Contemporary Negro Art” included works by more than 25 artists of the day. Among them were Hale Woodruff and Jacob Lawrence, two artists who would later become part of the museum’s permanent collection of American art.

With the launch of the new Contemporary Wing, the BMA is also becoming more tech savvy by introducing its first mobile art guide with audiovisual commentary by artists, curators, and community members. Make your way to the museum soon as Zwelethu Mthethwa’s installation in the Front Room closes on February 10. To learn more about works by African American artists at the BMA, click here and stay up to date on the Contemporary Wing here.

Michelle Joan Wilkinson, Ph.D. is a curator and global arts writer that keeps us hip to the Baltimore arts scene. Got a pick for Michelle? Email her here.

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