Antwaun Sargent Gives Black Artists Their Due

Antwaun Sargent Gives Black Artists Their Due

By Mikelle Street
Photographs by Justin Bridges

In December, in the early hours of a holiday party at artist Kehinde Wiley’s home, a few members of the art community were deep in conversation.

“Who is the hardest working person in art?” One had asked. A few names were being bandied about, Derrick Adams, whose prolific work over 2017 would be celebrated by a Swizz Beatz hosted party the following week, amongst them.

“Well besides you,” Wiley said, looking at Antwaun Sargent. In the next few months, the writer would debut the cover story he wrote on Solange Knowles, the visual artist, hopscotch through cities both domestically and internationally, attending and playing part in art events like the debut of the Obama paintings at the National Portrait gallery and perform as a juror for the 2018 ICP Infinity Awards. It is a grueling schedule, kept up while publishing pieces for publications like The New Yorker, T Magazine, Galerie, Vice and Artsy amongst others. But it’s all a part of a multi-pronged approach aimed at being in dialogue with artists of color — particularly black artists — about their work, while both privileging and contextualizing their own voices in a space where Sargent feels this hasn't been done historically. A hard worker indeed.

“I started writing about this work because the work greatly impacted my life,” Sargent said of his career over lunch last month. “Like, I got a job offer at Goldman Sachs. I could have been a lawyer. This is not about money; I could have gone and made a lot of money. So, it’s like, if life is not about those things what is it about?”

Antwaun at his home in Brooklyn

Antwaun at his home in Brooklyn

Sargent grew up in Chicago with an early love of fashion due to a household focus on presentation and aesthetics. That dovetailed with an interest in ideas and writing which led him to help develop $5 magazine in high school. All this was set against the backdrop of the Chicago art scene.

“I was friends with a lot of young artists, poets, musicians and visual artists,” Sargent said of those early years. “We were all like 15 or 16 but they had already decided that was a space they were going to take up. It was nice to have a front row seat to those folks’ work and then also feel empowered in showing your own work.”

“I don’t think that sort of youth art scene was possible in any other place than Chicago and it’s still very much a part of this city.” All of that has led to Sargent examining and considering the international art world in a role that many would call that of an art critic.

“For the longest time I would never call myself a critic because for so long, the infrastructure of criticism affirmed white supremacy in this country. And in some ways it still does,” he said. “Beauty and fashion and who should be represented and who should get certain roles; it was because of the way we contextualized that sort of stuff. It was not only what we saw but then what we read about it in newspapers and magazines and catalogs. All of that stuff worked together to produce the society in which we are living. So shouldn’t we now take a 360 view of the tools that we have and use those tools to also present a different perspective.” And it’s from there, that he has built his own practice.

While Sargent’s work sees him discussing, critiquing and praising the work and movements of the art world (and by extension visual culture) today, a large component involves him bringing context and nuance. And because he does that typically around issues involving people of color, it many times requires him to unearth figures, ideas, and occurrences that were previously ignored by the establishment. “In my opinion, my work is not only holding people up in the current moment but also looking back and saying these [other] people were not given their proper due and saying we need to make sure they get their proper due now,” Sargent explained. “That’s what it is for me: it’s about the current moment but it’s also about the past and how that then extends to the future.”

In practice, that means that as black artists get accolades today, Sargent writes about them but also points back to those who laid the groundwork. “Amy [Sherald] painted Michelle Obama for the National Portrait Gallery which was a beautiful moment but directly influenced by Barkley L. Hendricks,” he explained. “An artist who, until the early 2000s, had literally left figure painting because of the racism that had colored the art world at this time. He didn’t get his due but he directly influenced Mickalene Thomas, Amy Sherald, and Kehinde Wiley; you wouldn’t have gotten the work of any of these artists without Barkley. And we need to say that.“ And so Sargent does, on every platform that’s available to him.

Antwaun at his home in Brooklyn

Antwaun at his home in Brooklyn

Sargent takes a multiplatform approach advancing a variety of ideas about blackness as historically ideas around black people were monolithic. That happens through profiles and features on the likes of A$AP Rocky, the aforementioned Wiley as well as other artists like Deborah Roberts. But it also happens at events like when he chose to turn the Atlanta Contemporary Museum over to three artists. He takes those politics and motivations in to juror awards and now in to curatorial assignments as this summer he will co-curate his first exhibition with the Aperture Summer Open. But they also appear on his well followed Instagram.

“I see my Instagram as a platform, and it’s not just about posting black artist's works,” he said. “It’s also about showing how those works have directly impacted my own life. So in my own images I’m riffing on Barkley Hendricks. I’m also riffing on ideas of representation of race, of gayness; for me, I’m constructing images on that platform because I’ve come to realize that platform can be just as powerful as any other.”

In a way, this process is a critique of the institution of criticism itself. “It’s about knowing that these same institutions that I interact with today and I have some sway over today and that invite me to speak and invite me to write and pay me money to pose in their clothes, those are the same forces that marginalized us a decade ago,” Sargent says about the balance between his own politics and being deemed a critic. “Just because you’re a part of the club doesn’t mean that stuff didn’t happen so it’s slippery.”

“I’m trying to be a part of these things while saying ‘hey, there’s a different way.’”

Mikelle Street is a Manhattan-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, GQ, Esquire, Allure, Vice and elsewhere.