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Visiting the Black American Portrait Gallery on MLK Day

When I walked into the Resnick Pavillion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I was immediately struck by Kahil Joseph’s film project BLKNWS. The project, located immediately as you walk into the building, is an ongoing loop of a video that features a focus on music, art, film, and social media clips. As I looked closely at the project, part of the soundtrack of the video, “I’m Dreamin’” by Christopher Williams, echoed through the foyer as the lyrics echoed throughout, saying, “If I'm dreaming / Just let me sleep / Don't wake me up / Till my dream is complete” (Genius). 

Those lyrics ricocheted in my head as I thought about Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Maybe it was just on my mind due to visiting the museum on MLK Day, but the chorus of William’s song seemed to act as an accompaniment to the message of the Dream speech. As I looked to the right of Joseph’s video, I saw a piece entitled “150 Portrait Tone” by Mark Bradford. With elements of abstraction in a dark background figure, text covers the mural-size canvas in large block letters. The text is taken from a Facebook Live video that captures the 2016 shooting of Philando Castile by a St. Paul, MN, police officer. Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, was sitting next to him when he was shot. The video streaming from her phone, the text reads, “stay with me…please, officer, don’t tell me you just did this…Lord, please, Jesus, don’t tell me that he’s gone”(LACMA). The cohesive design of the mural brings a horrifically artistic nuance to a disturbing act of brutality. 

As I passed the mural, I noticed the Black American Portrait Gallery. Here, the walls were filled with pictures, sculptures, paintings, and woven tapestries of Black Americans. From everyday people, to celebrities like Kobe Bryant and Chadwick Boseman, to Marcus Garvey and Frederick Douglass, the walls were adorned with every art medium signifying the “love, abundance, family, community, and exuberance” of the Black Community (LACMA). A portrait of Kobe Bryant titled “Shattered Dreams” was purchased with funds from the artist most popularly known as Drake. A pop-art poster featuring John Lewis urged people to register to vote. Photographs of Barack Obama and Kamala Harris signified their trail-breaking roles in American politics. A quilt with astonishing detail immortalized the likeness of Chadwick Boseman and his role in bringing representation to modern-day superheroes as the Black Panther. A joyful photo of Jean-Michel Basquiat made him the focus of a piece of art. A portrait of Thomas Jefferson draped over the likeness of an enslaved woman in a piece called “Behind the Myth of Benevolence.” A landscape photograph imagined the signing of the Declaration of Independence with an all-Black parliament. 

Finally, the most poignant piece of the day, in my opinion, was a painting titled “I Had A Dream.” The unmistakable top half of Dr. King’s face looked straight on, his soft eyes holding a tension as though he knew his “dream” has not become reality. A glisten in his eye signifies hope for the future and a teary, deep sadness at the current state of the world. Seeing this gallery on the day where we celebrate Dr. King’s legacy was very powerful. When we visited other museums, even in Los Angeles, many of them focused on Eurocentric works, usually done by white men. At the LACMA, this gallery brought nuance to the experience of being Black in America by creating art that is not only focused on the pain and suffering, but also the inherently good communal qualities in celebrating the diversity of Los Angeles, California, and America. 

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