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Artist and curator explores Black history in Florence, Italy

February 19, 2021

Maria Gimeno; Bowdoin College Museum of Art
"On Being Present": Justin Randolph Thompson, artist and co-founder of Black History Month Florence, has spent the last 20 years exploring and uncovering Black history and likenesses in artwork in Florence, Italy.

On Wednesday, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (BCMA) hosted Justin Randolph Thompson for a Zoom presentation, titled: “On Being Present: Recovering Blackness in the Uffizi Galleries.” Thompson, an American artist and the co-founder of Black History Month Florence, has spent the last two decades in Florence, Italy.

Guided by questions surrounding race and representation, Thompson created a virtual exhibition, “On Being Present,”  which aims to educate visitors on the stories and historical contexts of African figures in the Uffizi painting collection.

“These are elements of history that, when we think about the narration of Florence, [are] not typically present,” said Thompson during his lecture. “Like the Renaissance, we don’t capture all of the layers that contributed to arriving at that moment, the social realities that were present in that moment and then also the ways in which those informed and influenced the values that lead through today,”

In 2016, Thompson created Black History Month Florence along with music artist and marketing strategist Andre Halyard. The project was born out of conversations the artists had with one another about Black history and portrayals of race in art. Its popularity has allowed the organization to hold over 50 events every year, totalling more than 300 events since its inception.

“We realized that it was actually possible to engage in these conversations in Florence—maybe these conversations were already happening—and we just needed to bring them together,” Thompson said. “We needed to create invitations to get people working together on that, and through the process.”

While studying in Florence, Thompson spent his time searching for figures and depictions of Black people in paintings, sculptures and marble inlays.

“One of the first things I was seeking was elements that would help me to understand and visualize what it meant for Black Africans to be in this space before me, whether we were talking about 10 years earlier or thousands of years earlier,” Thompson said. “Little by little, as I explored, I would take note of what I encountered. I did sketches—my way of keeping track of what was out there.”

One of the catalysts for Thompson’s research was his discovery that Alessandro de’ Medici, the first Duke of Florence, was of partial African descent.

“That really opened up my mind to that moment of history and brought out an acknowledgement … that Black Africans have been present throughout history in Florence,” said Thompson.

“Reinterpretation” was a refrain throughout Thompson’s presentation. In order to explore the meaning of art pieces through creation, he has spent time recreating depictions of Black people. Thompson felt that his recreation of a doorknob, which portrays the head of a Black person, was emblematic of this work.

“I was really astounded to look at [the doorknob] and to think about all the gargoyles and demons that were on other doors right in proximity and to think about what was at work there,” said Thompson. “[I was] thinking about whether or not this was designed to keep somebody away.”

Throughout his work, Thompson believed that he was engaging with Black history in Florence in ways that other artists and scholars hadn’t before. He developed  “On Being Present,” as a way to orchestrate collaborative discussions and reinterpretations of Renaissance era art for a general audience.

“It’s really remarkable to have somebody writing about [Black history] right now and to have somebody thinking through some of the things that have always been present in my own thoughts,” said Thompson.

The virtual exhibition, a partnership between Black History Month Florence and the Uffizi Galleries, enlists the help of fellow artists and scholars to reinterpret the art to recover Black history. The first volume of “On Being Present” was published in February 2020, and Volume Two is set to be released on  February 20.

“Even when there’s not a written record about these [Black African] figures, we have this [artistic] portrait,” said Thompson.  “That portrait is an incontestable presence.”


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