(NEWARK, NJ) -- The Newark Museum of Art acquired Legally Right on August 3, 2021. It a large-scale piece by abstract painter Mashell Black, who is the first artist to be represented by Akwaaba Gallery in Newark, the city’s only Black-owned commercial gallery.
The acquisition confirms Black’s status as a New Jersey artist whose work has lasting value and importance both locally and internationally, said Tricia Laughlin Bloom, the museum’s Curator of American Art. The painting, which is eight-feet in length, is an exciting addition to the museum’s collection, she said.
“Legally Right is a wonderfully expressive piece, very much of this cultural moment but also capturing the sweep of history. There is nothing quite like it in the museum,’’ said Bloom. “We are always looking for new works to activate our galleries and spark conversations about social justice. The exceptionally large scale of this painting and Black's powerful brushwork speak to centuries of conflict and brutality that has taken place in this country because of the gap between legal rights and the basic human rights of Black Americans and other marginalized communities.”
Legally Right was the focal point of Black, the artist’s recent solo show at Akwaaba, curated by gallery co-owner Laura Bonas Palmer. It featured paintings that center black as a compositional element and explore its power to signify emotions, ideas, people, and Black’s own memories.
Born in a small rural community in Jamaica, Black came to the U.S as a teen, attending school in Tenafly, NJ. He graduated from Syracuse University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2003 and earned an MFA from Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts in 2006. He lives in Raritan, NJ with his wife and young son and owns a house painting company. His art studio is based in Newark at Project for Empty Space.
Black created Legally Right, and many of his other works, by applying thickly textured layers of paint over plywood that he cut and framed himself. “I want to make paintings where the application of the material is so interesting it transcends language, race and politics,’’ he says.
But his work is also informed by concepts of race and his experiences as a Black man. “When I use the color black to represent Black people, I’m questioning how we are represented in paintings. It’s a commentary as well as an affirmation that Black is beautiful,’’ he says.
There are many reasons to celebrate the museum’s purchase of Black’s work, said Bonas Palmer. “It’s validation for the city and for the community. And for me as a Black gallery owner, and Mashell as a Black artist.”
Black chose Akwaaba to represent him because of the gallery’s commitment both to artists and Newark’s West Ward, where Palmer and her husband Ray, who co-owns the gallery, have lived for more than 15 years. In 2019, they opened Akwaaba to showcase both local and international artists and have attracted collectors from all over the world to South Orange Avenue, where the gallery is based.
“It’s a perfect place for my work, because I’m talking about Blackness in its rawest form. Whatever that is, it just needs to own itself,’’ said Black. “Laura and Ray went into this community and said it deserves as much beauty and attention as anything else. And that’s what I want to say in my work as well.’’
Newark Museum of Art is located at 49 Washington Street in Newark, New Jersey. Founded in 1909, The Newark Museum of Art is the largest art and education institution in New Jersey and one of the most influential museums in the United States. Its renowned global art collections, supported by significant holdings of science, technology and natural history, rank 12th among North America’s art museums. The Museum is dedicated to artistic excellence, education and community engagement with an overarching commitment to broadening and diversifying arts participation. As it has for over a century, the Museum responds to the evolving needs and interests of the diverse audiences it serves by providing exhibitions, programming and resources designed to improve and enrich people’s lives.
The Museum also encompasses the 1885 Ballantine House mansion, the Victoria Hall of Science, the Alice and Leonard Dreyfuss Planetarium, the MakerSPACE, the Billy Johnson Auditorium, the Alice Ransom Dreyfuss Memorial Garden, an authentic 1784 Schoolhouse, and the Newark Fire Museum.
The Newark Museum of Art, a not-for-profit museum of art and science, receives operating support from the City of Newark, the State of New Jersey, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State (a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts), the New Jersey Cultural Trust, the Prudential Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Victoria Foundation, the Estate of Phyllis and Sanford Bolton, the Wallace Foundation, and other corporations, foundations, and individuals. Funds for acquisitions and activities other than operations are provided by members and other contributors.