The Time is Always Now: Artists Reframe the Black Figure – National Portrait Gallery

Top Photo: Still You Bloom In the Land of No Gardens, 2021 by Njideka Akunyili. © Njideka Akunyili Crosby, courtesy of the artist Victoria Miro and David Zwirner

In a thought-provoking exploration of contemporary Black Art, Ekow Eshun, curator of “The Time Is Always Now,” emphasises the profound shift in the portrayal of the Black figure in artistic expression. The exhibition, hosted at the National Portrait Gallery, showcases works by 22 Black artists, each offering a unique perspective on the complexities of Black life through painting and drawing.

Eshun’s observation of an unprecedented proliferation of images and narratives depicting Black individuals resonates strongly within the exhibition space. It reflects a departure from past narratives, where Black artists were often sidelined due to systemic biases. Rather than a belated recognition, the collection feels like a culmination of recent cultural milestones.

'Conjestina' (2017) by Michael Armitage © Michael Armitage
Detail ‘Conjestina’ (2017) by Michael Armitage © Michael Armitage

However, Eshun quickly clarified that the exhibition was not about triumphalism or token celebration. Instead, it delves into the multifaceted nature of Black existence, capturing its intricacies, vulnerabilities, and triumphs. The artists featured in the exhibition offer a subjective lens through which to view the Black figure, transcending mere representation to explore deeper themes of identity, resilience, and societal perceptions.

“The Time Is Always Now” comprehensively surveys African diasporic artists from the UK and America. Curated by Eshun, a prominent figure in the contemporary art scene, the exhibition spans works created since 2000. It seeks to address the visibility of the Black form against a backdrop of cultural prominence and social marginalisation while challenging the historical absence of Black representation in Western art.

The lineup of artists includes Michael Armitage, Lubaina Himid, Kerry James Marshall, Toyin Ojih Odutola, and Amy Sherald. Their works serve as powerful reflections of Black life, grappling with themes of heritage, identity, and societal narratives. Through their art, they confront the viewer with questions about perception, representation, and the construction of racial identity in contemporary society.

As visitors engage with the exhibition, they are invited to reconsider preconceived notions and confront the complexities of Blackness in the modern world. The portraits on display offer aesthetic beauty and profound insights into the human experience, challenging viewers to confront their biases and assumptions.

“The Time Is Always Now” harnesses the transformative power of art and its ability to provoke thought, stimulate dialogue, and inspire change. It is a celebration of diversity, resilience, and the enduring spirit of the Black community, captured through the creative vision of 22 remarkable artists.

The exhibition features the work of leading artists including Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Hurvin Anderson, Michael Armitage, Jordan Casteel, Noah Davis, Godfried Donkor, Kimathi Donkor, Denzil Forrester, Lubaina Himid, Claudette Johnson, Titus Kaphar, Kerry James Marshall, Wangechi Mutu, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Chris Ofili, Jennifer Packer, Nathaniel Mary Quinn, Thomas J Price, Amy Sherald, Lorna Simpson, Henry Taylor and Barbara Walker.

Top Photo: Detail Still You Bloom In the Land of No Gardens, 2021 by Njideka Akunyili. © Njideka Akunyili Crosby, courtesy of the artist Victoria Miro and David Zwirner

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