After nearly two decades of acquisition efforts, the Yale University Art Gallery has significantly increased its collection of African-American artwork, from less than a handful to nearly 400.
The series is composed of art of all media, from paintings and sculptures to photography and prints. Although the YUAG started collecting artwork by African-American artists more than six decades ago, the bulk of its acquisitions occurred in the past 15-year period, according to Pamela Franks, the YUAG’s deputy director and curator of modern and contemporary art.
“Some of the gaps in the Yale University Art Gallery historically have been [artworks] by African-American artists,” Franks said. “[In addition], the last 20 years in contemporary art have been a period where many of the best artists working happen to be African-American.”
Franks added that the gallery plans on carrying this upward trend into the future.
African American Studies professor Erica James, who teaches the course “African American Art, 1963 to the Present” this semester, said her class works directly with this particular aspect of the YUAG’s collection each week. Several works that she discusses in her class are represented in the University’s collections, James said.
Giving credit to YUAG director and art professor Jock Reynold’s leadership, James lauded the YUAG’s collection as among the strongest university collections of modern and contemporary work by black American and African diaspora artists in the country.
“The University as a whole has played and is playing a special role in the expansion of current notions of American art and contemporary art more broadly,” James said.
Franks said part of the YUAG’s holdings was donated by dedicated collectors, while the rest was acquired through purchases after the gallery determined whether the work was “right and a good fit,” a process that involved following artists’ careers over many years and seeing their works in galleries and studio visits.
Franks identified “Another Fight for Remembrance,” a painting by African-American artist Titus Kaphar ART ’06, as a major addition to the YUAG in the past year and a half, and highlighting a long-standing partnership between Kaphar and the gallery.
In a Tuesday afternoon event at the YUAG, Kaphar, who currently teaches at the School of Art, spoke about his motivation for creating “Another Fight for Remembrance” and two other paintings. Holloway’s speech from two years ago, which used Elihu Yale’s portraits as portals to examine his legacy, inspired Kaphar to create “Unfit Frame,” one of the two other paintings, Kaphar said.
The paintings, intentionally adorned with shiny frames, reflect the harsh reality of Yale’s legacy as a slave owner and portray African-Americans depicted in historical paintings in a new light, according to Kaphar.
“As much as I love this institution, when I look around, what I don’t see are black or brown faces,” Kaphar said.
Kaphar pointed out that society memorializes injustices in various forms, including monuments and museum displays. Still, he said he does not want to simply erase these traces because “the last thing [society] wants” is to forget past wrongdoings.
“Another Fight for Remembrance” was purchased with a gift from the Arthur and Constance Zeckendorf Foundation.