In the Absence of Light: celebrating the history of black artists in America

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In a compelling new HBO documentary, film-maker Sam Pollard speaks to prominent creatives to tell the struggle and success of African American art

“Iget up at 7.30 in the morning and then I’m at my computer working, thinking about new ideas, pushing along the projects that I’m involved in,” 70-year-old Sam Pollard explains. The documentary film-maker, as an editor, frequently collaborated with Spike Lee on films such as Mo’ Better Blues, 4 Little Girls and Bamboozled. His storied directing career features the seminal civil rights docuseries Eyes on the Prize, the electrifying blues documentary Two Trains Runnin’, and the Academy Award-shortlisted MLK/FBI.

Speaking by video call from his New York City home, Pollard’s hearty laugh accompanies a still buoyant curiosity. “Even at this stage of my career, I still love what I do. That’s a big part of keeping me in the game. I love making films. I love talking about films. I love the process of showing how films are put together,” he says. His boundless energy – which includes a daily schedule of interviewing by Zoom, promoting and developing new projects, and teaching at NYU – has propelled him to release 10 separate documentaries over the last six years that captures both the prominent and little-known figures in African American history.

His new HBO-produced film Black Art: In the Absence of Light, in that same spirit, recounts David Driskell’s groundbreaking Two Centuries of Black American Art. First mounted at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma) in 1976, it’s an engrossing survey of African American art since 1750 that inspired attendees and future artists, and spurred questions surrounding representation.

“Originally, Henry Louis Gates and myself thought we should build it around Thelma Golden’s 1994 exhibition that was at the Whitney, The Black Male. She was the one who suggested we reach out to David Driskell,” recalls Pollard. “I met up with David at his apartment on 100th Street and Central Park West. We had a very nice dinner and talked about the genesis of Two Centuries and the artists that he included in the exhibition.” Driskell’s keen curation provided Pollard’s film with an easy entry point to not only unearth the legacy of the Lacma event, but to document foundational black artists like Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Selma Burke and Norman Lewis. A collection of creatives specializing in painting, architecture, decorative arts and drawings who used the arts to assert their power.

Pollard could have constructed a documentary solely concerning Two Centuries. The exhibit is so rich in breathtaking works by still generally unknown black artists, as evidenced by the film’s sumptuous montages of the pieces. Pollard, however, ambitiously opted to expand the film’s scope to include contemporary artists who could further speak to the event’s legacy.

He interviewed Carrie Mae Weems, Hank Willis Thomas, Jordan Casteel, Faith Ringgoldand Amy Sherald in New York City. Then traveled to Maine to meet with David Driskell. Flew to Chicago for Kerry James Marshall and Theaster Gates, then to Atlanta to see Radcliffe Bailey, Los Angeles for Betye Saar and her daughter Alison Saar, and finally to San Francisco to speak with Richard Mayhew and Mary Lovelace O’Neal. These inclusions allowed Pollard to flex Black Art: In the Absence of Light into a memorialization of Two Centuries while investigating the present landscape in the art world for African American artists.

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