The person behind the portrait
When art about art stands for something more
I have to admit that I didn’t pay attention to the U.S. National Portrait Gallery until this year. In part, I think, that is because I’ve long admired Filmmaker and Storyteller Ava DuVernay and saw Instagram that she was being honored at the 2022 Portrait of a Nation Gala.
Since then, I’ve learned that the mission of the National Portrait Gallery (founded in 1962) is to acquire and display portraits of individuals who have made significant contributions to the history, development, and culture of the people of the United States. This contribution could be through the visual arts, performing arts, and new media.
The portraits are in many mediums, including paintings, drawings, photographs, video, caricatures, engravings, and digital variations.
Artist Kenturah Davis created DuVernay’s portrait and said it was an honor to create the art because
“she really values sisterhood, camaraderie with other Black women that I really appreciate. My goal was to make a dynamic image. And Ava is a dynamic person…Here is this Black woman who is such a storyteller and artist, and that identity is also coming through in the portrait.”
Davis is a perfect match for DuVernay’s portrait, as Davis uses language as an art form to explore how we understand each other and the world.
In the Comparative American Studies journal, Researcher Teresa Hagan from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK says
“filmmaker and activist Ava DuVernay should be recognised as a Black female public intellectual. It demonstrates how DuVernay uses her work to grapple with the racial histories, philosophies and ideologies which have permeated American history and society. An artist-intellectual-activist, DuVernay sits in a historical lineage of Black artists employing visual cultures to interrogate and resist the operation of racism in the United States.”
DuVernay is a wonderful example of a filmmaker using art to impact society in a way that cultivates knowledge, truthful point of view, and common understanding — all to foster positive change. Says Hagan, “Her work as a filmmaker is located squarely in a long established tradition of the visual arts as resistance, as well as a mechanism for evoking Black historical and cultural memory.”
While films can be simply a form of entertainment, a two-hour escape. One could argue that if that escape gave us a gift of understanding, of empathy, of increased love, what a better world we would have. And that is what embodies these featured artists at the National Portrait Gallery.