‘The Time is Always Now': Black artists shine at London's National Portrait Gallery's latest show

Father Stretch My Hands by Nathaniel Mary Quinn (2021)
Father Stretch My Hands by Nathaniel Mary Quinn (2021) Copyright Credit: Rob McKeever/Gagosian
By Theo FarrantAP
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Paintings, drawing and sculptures created by Black artists come together at London's National Portrait Gallery as part of a major exploration into the portrayal of the Black figure in contemporary art.

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A new exhibition at London's National Portrait Gallery, titled "The Time is Always Now: Artists Reframe the Black Figure," brings together the work of 22 contemporary Black artists from the UK and the US who are taking the art world by storm.

Curator Ekow Eshun says the show is an invitation to consider what "Black experience, Black lived experience, Black identity and being, and presence, and history" looks like.

Alongside a new sculptural work create especially for the National Portrait Gallery, the exhibition includes works displayed in the UK for the first time, as well as paintings rarely shown in public galleries.

Historically, white Western artists have dominated how Black people are represented in art, often in subservient roles or as ‘exotic’ stereotypers.

However "The Time is Always Now", which takes its name from an essay on desegregation by American author, James Baldwin, acts as a rallying cry for change, placing Black artists and subjects firmly at the forefront.

What's on display at the exhibition?

She was learning to love moments, to love moments for themselves by Amy Sherald (2017)
She was learning to love moments, to love moments for themselves by Amy Sherald (2017)Credit: Amy Sherald/Hauser & Wirth.
Standing Figure with African Masks by Claudette Johnson
Standing Figure with African Masks by Claudette JohnsonCredit: Claudette Johnson/Hollybush Gardens, London

The exhibition is divided into three core themes - Double Consciousness, Persistence of History, and Kinship and Connection - each offering reflections on race, identity, and belonging.

In the section on Double Consciousness, artists such as Claudette Johnson and Amy Sherald challenge traditional notions of representation.

Sherald, who became a household name after she was commissioned in 2018 to paint Michelle Obama, then the First Lady of the United States, presents her life-sized grey-scale portraits of African American subjects.

Meanwhile Nathaniel Mary Quinn's fragmented portraits and Thomas J Price's monumental sculptures confront viewers with the complexities of self-perception and societal framing.

Works by other esteemed artists such as Michael Armitage, Lubaina Himid, Kerry James Marshall, and Toyin Ojih Odutola are also on display.

Conjestina by Michael Armitage
Conjestina by Michael ArmitageCredit: Michael Armitage/White Cube (Ben Westoby)
Nanny of the Maroons’ Fifth Act of Mercy by Kimathi Donkor
Nanny of the Maroons’ Fifth Act of Mercy by Kimathi DonkorCredit: Kimathi Donkor/Niru Ratnam/Tim Bowditch

The Persistence of History theme confronts historical narratives and their impact on contemporary society.

Historical figures such as Harriet Tubman and Nanny of the Maroons are brought to life thanks to the masterful work Kimathi Donkor. "Both of them were activists, actually military commanders in the struggle against slavery," explains Donkor.

"Particularly since the murder of George Floyd and the widespread protests which took place in the Black Lives Matter context, the questions of race and representation have sort of moved higher up the agenda of media and culture. But I think that we're still at the very earliest stages," he states.

Finally, the section on Kinship and Connection celebrates the richness of Black community and culture. Works by Hurvin Anderson, Denzil Forrester, and Chris Ofili depict moments of joy and resilience, while Toyin Ojih Odutola and Njideka Akunyili Crosby explore themes of domesticity and belonging.

Following its display at the National Portrait Gallery, the exhibition will tour to The Box in Plymouth before traveling to the USA.

The exhibition runs from 22 February to 19 May 2024 at London's National Portrait Gallery.

Check out our video above for a closer look inside the exhibition.

Video editor • Theo Farrant

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