A composite gold figure looks almost dismissively as people pass by in this new exhibition about the black figure by black artists at the National Portrait Gallery. It’s an exhibition that is in part revisionist, looking back at how black figures were represented but is mainly forward-looking, as new artists look at the black figure anew and shorn of Western baggage.

As the exhibition’s curator, the writer Ekow Eshun explained, there’s a long history of depicting the black figure in Western art, but for a Western customer and from a Western perspective. Often looked at, gazed at, othered, and rendered alien in paintings, it wasn’t until the 20th century that black figures started to be respected, and even more recently that contemporary black artists have been recognised.

The key to this exhibition is that we’re not just looking at art, but through the eyes of a black artist to look with them rather than at them.

In that sense, it’s a wide range of contemporary portraits of considerable range and diversity, with an unseen collective heritage in the artists who created them.

From Amy Sherald’s monochrome figures in colourful backgrounds to the huge portraits of customers in a barbershop, there’s a mix of the conventional-ish portrait through to Nathaniel Mary Quinn’s distorted collages of fragmented faces.

More revisionist in nature are Barbara Walker’s redrawing of old master paintings stripping them back to show the tokenistic black person as the main character.

Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s famous painting of The Beloved is often cropped to remove the black figure, who was only added because he wanted as black a boy as could be found for decorative purposes and with about as much regard as he would have a pot-plant. Although not including The Beloved, Barbara Walker’s work reverses the idea of the black person as a decorative ornament and makes them the main reason for the painting.

Black nudes almost look alien because our eyes have grown so used to western nudes, and in a way that jars to remind us of how rare a black nude is, even now.

It’s not an aggressive exhibition, just a good collection of portraits, which, if you weren’t told were all of black people by black artists, you could actually miss that fact. In a way, that’s the best part of the exhibition; it’s almost ordinary. It’s good art by good artists, and it’s only the nagging background knowledge that this exhibition probably couldn’t happened, even as recently as 20 years ago, that brings you up sharp at times.

The exhibition, The Time is Always Now is at the National Portrait Galllery until 19th May 2024.

  • Adults: £18
  • Under 25: £5
  • Concessions: Between £8 and £16
  • Art Pass: £9
  • Children under 12: Free
  • Members: Free

Tickets can be booked here, or bought on the day if there’s space in the gallery.


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