Beyond art and curation:
a conversation with Antwaun Sargent
The critic and curator talks setting the agenda with projects that showcase a new art movement driven by Black talent.
‘This constantly evolving contemporary world of consumption that we find ourselves in is a time where artists must find new ways to communicate and expand upon their artistic practice,’ says curator, art critic and writer Antwaun Sargent (he/him). For the Chicago-born commentator, whose non-traditional career path has taken him from kindergarten teacher to director at the Gagosian gallery, art goes beyond just capturing a moment in history. The Black artists he devotes his time to are authoring their own destinies by rewriting the role of artists through work that explores identity and representation.
With The New Black Vanguard, his 2019 photobook showcasing a new movement of Black photographers, Sargent uplifted the voices of artists pursuing highly creative responses to their unique relationships with culture and society. He used pictures that are not only about Blackness, they reveal how this emerging generation are also pioneering image-makers. Young talents bringing, ‘Fresh new perspectives and introducing new narratives into contemplation.’ And his approach to curating exhibitions that champion their output feels equally original.
Beyond ensuring that the viewer engages with the individual style of his artists, not just what they have in common, he crafts spaces that encourage visitors to physically connect with the experience as they move through it. Asking them to participate through sound, touch and even taste. His influence on an often stuffy and glacial art world bringing about change in more ways than just making work from the community both visible and understood. The next best way to do that? Simple. ‘More shows with more Black artists,’ he says.
From his home in New York, here Sargent talks about progress, how representation in the fashion media is changing and whose art conversations we should be part of.
‘This is a time where artists must find new ways to communicate, bend, and transform their art.’
ON NAVIGATING THE INDUSTRY
‘Travelling around the world to different parts of the US, Africa, Europe and the Caribbean as a result of my writing practice, has allowed me to thoroughly engage with how Blackness is presented in the visual arts. Subsequently it has been truly a collaborative journey synthesising what I’ve learned to turn into my book The New Black Vanguard, which was published in October 2019.’
ON MEASURING PROGRESS
‘In terms of overall representation of the Black figure, magazine covers in the 2020s have featured Black subjects three times more often than over the previous 90 years. One could see that as progress, or one could look and ask why now? Asking these questions opens really interesting debates around the Black commercial image and the circulation of that. I do feel incredibly lucky to be able to witness and write the first book on this movement. These are young artists aged 22 to 35 at the beginning of their careers putting their perspective on a history that is unbelievably white, male and heterosexual.’
ON RESHAPING THE ART WORLD
‘The reception for The New Black Vanguard has been unique. I have not seen a photobook garner this much reception in the past 10 years. Over 20,000 copies have been sold. This attention I hope can truly indicate to Black Photographers that their work matters. When we were on the book tour before Covid-19 stopped us, people were coming from all over the place, flying from Seattle, travelling from Texas. There was a line down the block to see the exhibition. I saw people crying in front of photographs. I will never forget this for the rest of my life.’
ON CURATING EXPERIENCES
‘Take Social Works 1 last year in New York for example. The hope was that people would reflect on how they engaged with the space and what privileges, or prejudices happen or are enacted on them as they move through the space. That’s inherent. My primary concern, in terms of the audience, was thinking through the way that audiences can experience an exhibition – so you don’t just have a painting on a wall, you have sound that you may dance to, you have sculpture that you move through, you have a farm that you may take food from. You’re asked to do some of the work with your body in this exhibition, and I hope that helps folks consider the ways in which they move through the world.’
ON CONNECTING ART & STYLE
‘Some of my biggest inspirations are the gentlemen featured in the work of the late, great painter Mr Barkley L Hendricks (1945-2017), who made striking portraits of incredibly stylish Black men and women.’
ON EMERGING VOICES TO FOLLOW
‘Awol Erizku toying with the commercial and conceptual in photography. Alexandria Smith’s dreamlike allegorical paintings that visualize the many unspoken roles, contradictions, and uncertainties impressed upon the Black female body. And finally, Amanda Williams whose architectural work is an identity-affirming response to the most recent tumultuous racial events in the United States.’
Which art show had the biggest impact on the younger you?
‘Kara Walker at the Guggenheim.’
Which book would you recommend everyone reads?
‘The New Black Vanguard.’
What advice would you give someone considering an art career?
‘I have a clear direction of who I am, and I think when you have a clear direction of who you are, then that helps clarify your style.’
Words by Ben Perdue
Photography by Tim Elkaïm
Styling by Clare Richardson
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