One of New York City’s “unusual characters.” | Photo by Clay Benskin for Time. Used with permission from the photographer
TIME TAPPED Ava DuVernay to guest edit a special issue devoted to optimism and she delivered a magazine chock full of hope, promise and creativity. The award-winning film and television director/producer elected to explore optimism through the lens of art and artists working in a variety of disciplines.
The Art of Optimism issue features visual artists, performing artists, writers, a chef, and a TV showrunner. Lena Waithe weighed in on the black renaissance in Hollywood and Los Angeles poet laureate Robin Coste Lewis contributed a poem. Ethiopian photographer Aida Muluneh and New York City street photographer Clay Benskin are profiled.
A building manager turned street photographer, Beskin, 48 is recognized for capturing “unusual characters” and romantic moments around the city. I just enjoy people,” he told Time. “Everything fascinates me.”
DuVernay titled the introduction to her latest project “Why Art is the Antidote for Our Times.” Life is certainly challenging, but the current moment is particularly fraught. She cites the “bigotry, poverty, injustice, trauma, trouble” that dominates the news. She believes art provides a beacon.
Her vision for the 2019 Optimism issue was to explore “not only the idea of optimism but its representation. The literal visibility of the proverbial bright side.”
DuVernay continued: “To me, that is the job of art. To meet us where we are and to invite us in—to think, to feel, to wonder, to dream, to debate, to laugh, to resist, to roam, to imagine. Art is worthy of our interrogation and is in fact an antidote for our times. For the vital moment comes when we each must understand that the social, political and historical connectedness born of traumatic experiences can and should transform to true, elongated engagement with one another. Engagement not steeped in fear and separation, but in shared knowledge, recognition and contentment. Art instigates all of this.”
“Art is worthy of our interrogation and is in fact an antidote for our times. …Engagement not steeped in fear and separation, but in shared knowledge, recognition and contentment. Art instigates all of this.” — Ava Duvernay
Two covers were produced for the issue. One features a portrait of a girl with red wire-rim glasses by South African artist Nelson Makamo; the other is an image of Cicely Tyson, 94, looking radiant in red photographed by Los Angeles-based, French photographer Djeneba Aduayom.
A GAME CHANGER in television and film, DuVernay turns out to be a talented magazine maker, too. Two different covers were produced for the special issue. Cicely Tyson, 94, looking radiant in red graces one. The other was created by South African artist Nelson Makamo, 36. His portraits feature children. He has a deal with his young cousin that if she will model for him, he will pay for her schooling. DuVernay bought a painting at auction by Makamo in 2017. The magazine cover is the first the artist has ever produced. “It scared me because, even though I’ve been working for a long time, it felt like a debut,” Makamo said.
The Optimism issue includes 15 articles focusing overwhelmingly on leaders and artists of color who are shaping the field.
“Champions of Culture” assembles a dozen arbiters of creativity—curators, editors, and other gatekeepers who provide opportunities, platforms, and support for artists. Highlighted are figures such as Rhea Combs, film and photography curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture; Chris Jackson, publisher and editor-in-chief of One World Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House; Hammer Museum assistant curator Erin Christovale; Rujeko Hockley, assistant curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art; Kevin Young, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, who also serves as poetry editor of The New Yorker; and gallery owner Jack Shainman.
Since 1986, Shainman has represented a diverse roster of artists, which today includes Nina Chanel Abney, El Anatsui, Titus Kaphar, Kerry James Marshall, Toyin Ojai Odutola, Hank Willis Thomas, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, and Carrie Mae Weems, among others. “When you show something in the gallery, you have to be ready to defend it—not everybody comes in and loves everything all the time,” he told Time.
Early on, Shainman said he had challenges getting work by black artists shown at art fairs and many clients weren’t receptive to the work. In 1993, after his first show with Marshall, when a few paintings remained unsold, the artist told the dealer: “I just don’t think people are ready to have pictures of black people in their living rooms.” Perceptions are changing, but are far from resolved.
“When you show something in the gallery, you have to be ready to defend it—not everybody comes in and loves everything all the time.” — Gallery Owner Jack Shainman
ALSO IN THE ISSUE, Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation, offers an entreaty—stop saying books are dead, the facts prove otherwise. Bill Gates shares his fascination with Leonardo da Vinci. He says the Renaissance artist is an innovator who connects art to optimism. Preeti Mistry, “queer brown immigrant” chef, speaks out the soul stirring joy of the act of cooking for loved ones and the lack of respect for women and non-European cuisine in the restaurant industry.
Readers also hear directly from artists aged 18 to 94, about how they “keep their creative spirit alive.” The group includes ballet dancer Jeffrey Cirio, poet Elizabeth Alexander (who is also president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation), and visual artists Hank Willis Thomas, Jenny Holzer, Louis Delsarte, and Frank Bowling.
A Guyana-born British painter, Bowling lives in London and New York. The 84-year-old’s first major retrospective opens in May at Tate Britain. “I don’t ever stop painting in my mind. When I am in bed, unable to sleep, I see paint moving across the ceiling and imagine it spilling and pouring as it flows through the nooks and cracks,” said Bowing. “I don’t need to be inspired to make work. The work inspires me.” CT
Fimmaker Ava DuVernay meets with the Time editorial team that helped produce the magazine’s 2019 Optimists issue. | Video by Time
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