The Time is Always Now: straightforward visual pleasures abound in this stirring celebration of black artists

Le Rodeur: The Exchange by Lubaina Himid (2016)
Le Rodeur: The Exchange by Lubaina Himid (2016) - Lubaina Himid/ Hollybush Garden

Déjà vu? You may feel you’ve seen the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition before. In a sense, you have.

There are 22 contemporary artists in curator Ekow Eshun’s celebration of “Black figuration”, The Time is Always Now. Many, of late, have been centre stage. Hurvin Anderson, Michael Armitage, Lubaina Himid, Claudette Johnson, Jennifer Packer: all, within the past three years, have had solo exhibitions at prominent public galleries. Some artworks in this show now feel almost as familiar to me as my own children. Black artists today aren’t marginalised. They’re mainstream.

Like 2022’s In the Black Fantastic at the Hayward Gallery, which Eshun also curated, this exhibition, then, reflects the ascendancy of a new artistic establishment. Near the start, Thomas J Price’s 9ft-tall gleaming bronze statue of a gym bunny in Nike trainers with braids and a beatific expression stands proud, like a female superhero.

Sometimes, though, familiarity breeds admiration and respect – and so it proves here, if straightforward visual pleasure is your bag. Who could fail to be stirred by Kerry James Marshall’s crisp and confident panels, or three fiery, unforgettable paintings by Michael Armitage, colossal in scale and scope? One, brilliantly, quotes Titian while depicting a tear-gassed crowd.

Various tendencies may be discerned. Several artists “reclaim” the black figure as a glamorous subject, favouring spotless surfaces and sleek silhouettes. (An elegant painting – shown in London two years ago – of a soignée young woman with grey skin and coral fingernails, by Michelle Obama’s portraitist Amy Sherald, typifies this approach.) Others grapple with the canon of Western European painting. Stillness, melancholy, and a sort of dignified stylishness characterise the early stages.

She was learning to love moments, to love moments for themselves by Amy Sherald (2017)
She was learning to love moments, to love moments for themselves by Amy Sherald (2017) - Amy Sherald/ Hauser & Wirth

The final, and strongest, section, though – presented in an eccentrically designed gallery in which silver balustrades sprout from a temporary floor covering that resembles AstroTurf – concentrates on “the Black everyday”. Denzil Forrester depicts an ecstatic dancehall rave as if he were a Vorticist; Henry Taylor paints a father and son mucking about with a baseball and bat.

In an adjoining canvas, Taylor portrays himself and his smiling artist friend Noah Davis (who died, in 2015, aged 32), sitting outside and smoking. The fact that they’re black is immaterial: they’re just two blokes enjoying sunshine and companionship. This is, argues Eshun, “a Black world … where being Black does not mean existing in the long shadow of slavery.”

Opposite, against a silver wall, an oil painting by Davis, 1975 (8) (2013), inspired by a snapshot taken by his mother in Chicago’s South Side during the 1970s, depicts a young boy diving into a swimming pool filled with black bathers. According to the label, it may allude to the history of segregation in the United States.

Above all, though, it’s an easeful image of agency and hope, as the hurtling body of this lithe lad – whose bright soles surprisingly, and dynamically, occupy the composition’s centre – arrows towards the water. For now, he may appear frozen in mid-air, but, like his fellow artists here, Davis has already made a bigger splash.


From Feb 22; npg.org.uk