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Black women artists in L.A. museums: Good news at Hammer, but representation remains weak

Black women artists in L.A. museums: Good news at Hammer, but representation remains weak
Njideka Akunyili Crosby is a Nigerian-born artist known for detailed collages of intimate family scenes. Seen here: "5 Umezebi Street, New Haven, Enugu," from 2012. (Max Yawney / Tilton Gallery)

This year has seen a spate of solo museum exhibitions of work by black artists in Los Angeles: Mark Bradford and Charles Gaines at the Hammer, Noah Purifoy at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and William Pope.L and Kahlil Joseph at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Last week, I spoke with African and African American art historian Steven Nelson about these exhibitions and what shifts they might represent at the institutional level.

One thing we both noted: a glaring lack of major museum solo exhibitions featuring the work of black women artists.

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There is, however, some hope on the horizon. In October, the Hammer Museum will be displaying an exhibition of work by Nigerian-born artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby, organized by Hammer assistant curator Jamillah James. Crosby is known for intensive collages — employing photographs, photo transfers and bits of African lifestyle magazines — that depict intimate domestic scenes.

This is a big deal. I poked around online exhibition archives to see the frequency with which black female artists have gotten shows at Los Angeles' big three museums (Hammer, MOCA, LACMA — the city's three biggest museums regularly showing work by contemporary artists) over the last several years. The numbers leave something to be desired.

The last time a black female artist had a solo museum show at one of the big three was in 2013 when Shinique Smith had an exhibition at LACMA. Smith's show wasn't at the museum's main campus, but rather LACMA's satellite exhibition space at Charles White Elementary School in the MacArthur Park/Westlake area. The install combined works by Smith with pieces from LACMA's permanent collection — and Smith did some super cool projects with Charles White students — but certainly, the artist's visibility was muted by the remote location.

All of this means that, including Crosby's upcoming show at the Hammer, there will have been a whopping two solo shows by black female artists at L.A.'s big three over a six-year period. The last time a black female artist headlined a major exhibition in Los Angeles was when Kara Walker had her solo at the Hammer in 2008 ... seven years ago.

Prior to that, there was a project installation by Brenna Youngblood, also at the Hammer, in 2007, and an exhibition of work by Lorna Simpson at MOCA in 2006. And that's pretty much it for the last nine years.

So here's hoping some L.A. curator somewhere has Betye Saar on the speed dial. As Nelson mentioned in our conversation, Saar has been working in L.A. for half a century. Seems like she, along with so many others, might be due for a show.

"Hammer Projects: Njideka Akunyili Crosby" opens Oct. 3. 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood, Los Angeles, hammer.ucla.edu.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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