Editor’s Note: This story is part of a series marking Black History Month. Throughout the month read stories about the people who contribute to our community and learn more about Black history and how it influences us today.
The New Britain Museum of American Art is celebrating Black History Month by highlighting Black artists and artwork, as well as hosting community programs for adults and youth.
The “Permanent Collection Installation: People and Places in America, 1960s to Today” features artwork from Romare Beardon, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, Faith Ringgold, Betye Sarr and Jaune Smith. The artwork will be on display at the museum, 56 Lexington St., New Britain, until May 1.
“It’s especially important because in a normal year, we’ll see 10,000 or 11,000 students on tours,” Maura O’ Shea, the museum’s director of education, said about including African American artwork. “Very diverse, from very diverse backgrounds and it’s critical that they see a diverse range of artwork and artists. Also for schools, it’s essential. We are hearing from teachers that it is a must.”
Using sculpture, print, collage, photography, painting and other mediums the artwork depicts the American Civil Rights Movement, bringing awareness to the struggle and celebrating diversity and heritage, according to the museum website.
Near the front entrance, visitors will see almost identical pieces of artwork next to each other. However, upon closer look, it can be seen that artist Titus Kaphar has taken a historical piece and changed the story.
“He has made his reputation and career based on reinterpreting works and museum collections and shifting the dialogue,” O’Shea said. “What Kaphar is commenting on is in the history of art, people of color are often unidentified or left out.”
In the original, the focus is on a white man with a young, Black boy depicted as an unknown servant. In Kaphar’s piece, the white man’s face and hands are cut out and the focus is on “Jaavon” – a boy in Kaphar’s neighborhood in New Haven.
One of the few animated pieces of artwork is “Light up My Life (For Sandra Bland)” by Cauleen Smith. The animation alternates between “I will light you up” and “I will light up your life.” The former is what was said by a police officer to Sandra Bland, an African-American woman, during a traffic stop caught on video in 2015. Bland was arrested and later died in police custody.
“I will light up your life” comes from the Debby Boone song “You Light Up My Life”. By combining the phrases, Smith “casts into relief racially charged experiences, while also inverting threatening language and rendering it hopeful,” the description of the artwork said.
Smith uses her art to explore social and political liberation, African-American identity and in her recent works, violence against Black women.
In addition to the artwork, the museum hosts “Gallery Talks.” The next one, on Feb. 16 at 1 p.m., spotlights African-American contemporary mixed-media painter and sculptor Radcliffe Bailey. Registration. Tickets are available on the museum’s website https://nbmaa.org/.
Children have the opportunity to submit videos, photos and written or audio work for the Youth Creative Contest to celebrate Black History Month. Youth are asked to express this year’s theme: “Be Courageous. Be Resilient. Be Empowered.” Work can be submitted to the museum’s website by Feb. 18 for a chance to be featured on the website along with winning prizes.
“People want to see themselves reflected on the walls of an institution like this and their voices heard.” said Lisa Lappe, the museum’s director of marketing. “So many of our visitors have noticed that we are amplifying the voices of more Americans and every American and they thank us.”