Local Color: Your Museum-Worthy Guide to Getting Cultured Over the Holidays

Photo: Shaunda Jay (Nappy.co)

So, maybe you’re back home for the holidays—or maybe you’re hosting this year. Maybe you’re spending the break blessedly solo. No matter the specifics, you’ve hopefully got some long overdue downtime coming your way over the final days of 2018.

But how many rounds of leftovers, good-natured (we hope) family feuds, epic sleep-ins and Hallmark Christmas specials can you really take before you get—dare we say it—bored? (Okay, don’t answer that.) And if you’re playing host to out-of-towners this week, how do you plan to keep them entertained during the entirety of their stay?

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Frankly, a few days off are a great time to check out the local arts and culture scene in your city—or, in a city you’re visiting. And believe it or not, there are currently exhibitions highlighting black artists, history and culture on view throughout the country.

With that in mind, we’ve assembled a list of exhibitions in 25 urban areas that you won’t want to miss this season. (Listed in alphabetical order—and apologies if your city isn’t listed; it simply means we couldn’t find any black-focused exhibits in your area).

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Atlanta, Ga.

If you’d like a refresher course on the impact and importance of free speech in this county, look no further than The Center for Civil and Human Rights. Then, make your way over to the High Museum of Art to see With Drawn Arms: Glenn Kaino & Tommie Smith (on view through February 3), the culmination of a multi-year, multimedia collaboration between Los Angeles–based conceptual artist Glenn Kaino and 1968 Olympic gold medalist-turned activist Smith.

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Austin, Tx.

The Blanton Museum of Art is currently featuring Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design (on view through January 6), showcasing over 120 artists and designers illustrating the impact of African design upon the continent.

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Baltimore, Md.

When in Baltimore, we always recommend a stop at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture. But the Baltimore Art Museum has several concurrent exhibits of interest, including one on the history of Kuba cloth and Kingston-born artist Ebony Patterson’s …for little whispers… (through April 7), an immersive memorial to children killed in violent crimes in the museum’s Berman Textile gallery.

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Also of interest in the museum is Mark Bradford’s Tomorrow Is Another Day (on view through March 3), a “progression of installations that incorporate themes and figures from Bradford’s personal life in addition to mythological references.” (Fun fact: Bradford also has an installation at the Hirshhorn Gallery in Washington D.C. through 2021.)

Boston, Ma.

You can never go wrong with visits to the city’s Museum of African American History or the National Center of Afro-American Artists, which feature black excellence full-time. But several other showcases for black artists are also in full swing in Boston, starting with the Boston University Art Galleries, which is featuring a double dose of black woman magic from Alexandria Smith and Ja’Tovia Gary (both on view through January 27).

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Smith’s A Litany for Survival is her first solo exhibition in Boston, an installation of work that explores “Black female subjectivity.” Gary’s Giverny I (Négresse Impériale) was shot on location in Claude Monet’s garden in Giverny, France and similarly, “examines the parlous nature of Black women’s bodily integrity.”

Famed Nairobi-born artist Wangechi Mutu has a commission on display at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston, titled A Promise to Communicate, (on view through December 31).

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And if you’re seeing If Beale Street Could Talk over the holidays, the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University has produced a timely companion piece in Time is Now: Photography and Social Change in James Baldwin’s America (on view through December 30).

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Charlotte, N.C.

The Harvey B. Gantt Center is the go-to for African American arts and culture in Charlotte, but the Mint Museum Randolph is currently putting a stylish spin on our legacy with African-Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style (on view through April 28), revisiting the Indonesian and Indian roots of the distinctive cloths we know (and wear) as wax prints.

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Chicago, Il.

The DuSable Museum is perhaps one of the best in the country for presenting African American work, and has several striking exhibits currently on display. But the nearby Smart Museum at the University of Chicago is also celebrating the legacy of black artists on Chicago’s legendary South Side with The Time Is Now! Art Worlds of Chicago’s South Side (on view through December 30). Downtown at the Chicago Cultural Center (blocks away from the Art Institute), a different type of black artistry is on display with African American Designers in Chicago: Art, Commerce and the Politics of Race (on view through March 3).

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And acclaimed artist Theaster Gates’ Stony Island Arts Bank is the site of the third exhibition of ICONIC: Black Panther (on view through January 6); a tribute in honor of the 50th anniversary of the organization’s Chicago branch and the art it still inspires today.

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Cincinnati, Oh.

No stop in Cincinnati (or nearby Louisville, Ky.) would be complete without a stop at the magnificent National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which is currently celebrating Mandela’s 100th birthday with Mandela: Journey to Ubuntu (recently extended through March 31).

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Dallas/Fort Worth, Tx.

If Dallas is the site of your holiday celebrations this year, the African American Museum of Dallas has several ongoing exhibits, including one of the largest collections of African American folk art in the country.

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At The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Nigerian-born 2017 MacArthur Genius Fellow Njideka Akunyili Crosby reflects upon her experience of immigrating to America using paint, fabric, and photographic transfers.

Detroit, Mi.

Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History was Aretha Franklin’s family’s choice for the public visitation of the late Queen of Soul, and they have a tribute to their hometown heroine running through January 21. Also on site: an exhibit on black hair and fashion.

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The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit is playing host to artist Tyree Guyton’s 2+2=8: Thirty Years of Heidelberg and Process (through January 16). Including drawings and studies that illustrate Guyton’s thought process and influences, “Process takes us on a journey into the mind of Tyree Guyton,” the museum’s site says.

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Houston, Tx.

The Houston Museum of African American Art has a current exhibition on Sandra Bland (extended through April 28), while the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston has produced Walls Turned Sideways: Artists Confront the Justice System (through January 6). The latter features “work by artists from across the nation that addresses the criminal justice system, mass incarceration, and the prison-industrial complex.” (Admission is free.)

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At the Lawndale Art Center, take a look at Olaniyi Rasheed Akindiya’s Ara Oru Kinkin (Masquerades Mythology) (through March 3). Combining symbols and patterns from cultures around the world, Akindiya (aka AKIRASH) has created masquerade costumes and masks from traditional materials.

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Jackson, Ms.

For a true history on the American civil rights movement at one of its catalytic locations, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is a must-see. But the Mississippi Museum of Art is featuring a voice of indigenous America with Jeffrey Gibson: Like A Hammer (through January 27), which “explores the universal themes of race, power, control, stereotypes, and colonialism, as well as love, community, strength, vulnerability, and survival.”

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Los Angeles, Ca.

The California African American Museum has several artists of the moment currently on view through December 31, including Robert Pruitt, Nina Chanel Abney and Gary Simmons. but The Fowler Museum at UCLA is delving into our ancient artistry with three exhibits (through January 31): Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths, World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean, and Summoning the Ancestors: Southern Nigerian Bronzes. Also on display (through April 28) is photographer Pableaux Johnson’s New Orleans Second Line Parades, an exhibition of more than 40 color portraits.

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Originated and organized by the Modern Museum of Art in New York City, Adrian Piper: Concepts and Intuitions, 1965-2016 is now installed at The Hammer Museum at UCLA through January 6. This retrospective of the social commentarian and multimedia artist features more than 270 works and “encompasses a wide range of mediums that Piper has explored for over 50 years.”

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Memphis, Tn.

The incredible National Civil Rights Museum and Stax Museum are must-sees when one is in Memphis, but the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art is currently hailing one of its own. Ernest Withers: A Buck & a Half Apiece (through March 20, 2019) is “a survey of works by the noted Civil Rights era photographer that have become an indelible part of the American music psyche, this exhibition includes photographs taken on Beale Street, in Memphis recording studios, nightclubs and churches, and on city streets—as well as portraits of famous musicians in their heyday.”

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Miami, Fl.

The Pérez Art Museum Miami currently plays host to a retrospective by Ebony G. Patterson. Her. . . while the dew is still on the roses . . . (through May 5) includes examples of the artist’s work produced over the last five years, and “investigate forms of embellishment as they relate to youth culture within disenfranchised communities.”

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Also on view is Arthur Jafa’s 2016 video Love is the Message, the Message is Death (through April 21), which “captures the powerful emotions that underlie the African American experience, past and present ... the work testifies to the immense cultural achievements of African Americans while alluding to the pain and suffering that black people have endured throughout this country’s history.”

Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami is presenting a “groundbreaking exhibition” celebrating the founding and 50th anniversary of the Black Arts Movement collective AFRICOBRA, which originated in Chicago. AFRICOBRA: Messages to the People is on view through April 7.

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Queen of Salsa Celia Cruz is honored at the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora with Forever Celia (through March 31), a retrospective “in the context of her journey as a Cuban exile, fashion trailblazer, and music icon,” including never-before-seen items from her personal collection.

Miami-born artist Purvis Young is the focus of a large-scale exhibition encompassing the entire first floor of the Rubell Family Collection (through June 29). Over 100 paintings, many including collage and found objects, evoke the experience of African Americans in the south.

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Milwaukee, Wi.

As many are reuniting with their families, the Milwaukee Art Museum is exhibiting Family Pictures (through January 20), which “explores the ways in which black photographers and artists have portrayed a range of familial relationships, from blood relatives to close-knit neighborhoods to queer communities.” The exhibition opens with Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes’ lauded 1955 book The Sweet Flypaper of Life, and includes works from Gordon Parks, Deana Lawson, Carrie Mae Weems and more.

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Also on view is The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin State Prison (through March 10), which “not only invites audiences to consider how images of prisoners have been codified, but also seeks to promote the critical reading of cultural codes and power structures inherent within visual images.”

New Orleans, La.

Most visitors to New Orleans will make an obligatory stop at the New Orleans Jazz Museum, but the city’s museums are celebrating even more black art this holiday season. For instance, The Contemporary Arts Center of New Orleans is showing a retrospective by photographers Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick. Labor Studies (through February 10) exhibits the photographs of laboring communities of Louisiana they have taken over 40 years—including the inmates of the state penitentiary at Angola.

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The New Orleans Museum of Art is showcasing two incredible black women artists. Mildred Thompson: Against the Grain (on view through August 31) is the first solo museum presentation of the experimental wood works of the American expat in more than 30 years.

Lina Iris Viktor’s A Haven, A Hell, A Dream Deferred (through January 6) continues to explore the connection of black bodies to the mystical, “recasting factual and fantastical narratives surrounding America’s involvement in the founding of Liberia.”

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Montclair, New Jersey

At the Montclair Art Museum, witness the stunning intricacy and visceral imagery of Kara Walker’s Virginia’s Lynch Mob and Other Works (through January 6).

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New York City/Brooklyn, N.Y.

For what’s new and next in the black art world, the Studio Museum of Harlem is always worth a visit when in New York City. But the nationally-recognized art mecca has several other exhibitions celebrating us this holiday season, from a number of perspectives.

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Charles White: A Retrospective, the first major museum show dedicated to the artist in over 30 years, is on view at the Museum of Modern Art (through January 13). The exhibition charts over four decades of White’s career with over 100 works in various media.

El Museo del Barrio explores the process and impact of street photography with Down These Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography (one view through January 6), which explores the work of 10 photographers who deeply identify with the communities they captured.

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The Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibits Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power through February 3, showcasing the prolific period of black artistry across the country between 1963 to 1983.

Oakland/San Francisco, Ca.

The African American Museum & Library of Oakland is a treasure trove of information and archival materials in the birthplace of the Black Panther Party. But following up on their highly successful 2016 exhibition All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50, the Oakland Museum of California has mounted a new installation, Black Power (opening February 8), which “will illustrate the creative ways black anti-racist activists in California supported their communities and challenged the U.S. government.”

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The museum also hosts the return of Question Bridge: Black Males, an interactive simulation of face-to-face conversations with 160 Black men across the United States.

Nearby in San Francisco, the Museum of the African Diaspora is unfortunately closed for the holidays as they prepare for new exhibitions, but fashion lovers can head to the de Young Museum to see Contemporary Muslim Fashions from both emerging and established designers.

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Philadelphia, Pa.

The African American Museum in Philadelphia remains an institution for exploring what it means to be black in America—for instance, currently on view is an installation on the insidious beauty and history of cotton.

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And at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts South African photographer Zanele Muholi partnered with the Philadelphia Photographic Arts Center and 10 Philadelphia women to ask “Whose portraits are shown in museums?” and “Who is art for?” in Zanele Muholi & The Women’s Mobile Museum (through March 31).

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Pittsburgh, Pa.

The Andy Warhol Museum hosts the the first museum solo exhibition of Philadelphia-born artist Devan Shimoyama, featuring painting, photography, sculpture, and new works in Devan Shimoyama: Cry, Baby (through March 17).

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St. Louis, Mo.

Barack Obama’s portraitist Kehinde Wiley turned his gaze to north St. Louis and Ferguson, Mo. for Kehinde Wiley: Saint Louis, on view through February 10 at the St. Louis Museum of Art. Using his customary process of street casting, Wiley created 11 original portraits inspired by artworks in the Museum’s collection.

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Jean-Michel Basquiat would’ve turned 58 years old on Saturday, December 22. The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis celebrates his legacy with a retrospective of his early works, Basquiat Before Basquiat: East 12th Street, 1979–1980. While you’re there, take in William Downs’ mural Sometimes it hurts and a striking exhibit by Sanford Biggers (all on view through December 30).

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Seattle, Wa.

The Northwest African American Museum has two intriguing exhibitions currently in play. Jeremy Bell: Utopian Blackness (through March 24) is intended to “frame the ordinary beauty of ‘just being you,’ while elevating the relevance of identity found in a Utopian Blackness.” Also on view is Bold As Love: Jimi Hendrix at Home, (through May 5) which uses archival and family photos, personal artifacts and artwork, music and multimedia to take an intimate look at the Seattle icon.

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The Frye Museum is unearthing the past with Seattle-based poet Quenton Baker’s first museum solo exhibition, “an immersive text environment exploring the wake of the 1841 slave revolt aboard the brig Creole.”

The Seattle Art Museum is highlighting 15 (predominantly black) artists from around the world in In This Imperfect Present Moment (through June 16), titled from a portrait by Toyin Ojih Odutola and including Michelle Obama portraitist Amy Sherald.

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Norfolk/Richmond, Va.

Chrysler Museum of Art (Norfolk) presents Ezra Wube: Tales of Home (through December 30), a series of stop-motion animation video vignettes “about urban life in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and visual depictions of Ethiopian oral folktales.”

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At Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (Richmond) the fourth and final installment of Patience and Perserverance: The Black Photographers Annual, Volume 4 in on view through May 11, pairing photographs by James Van Der Zee with works by a younger photographers, including Dawoud Bey.

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Washington D.C.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (aka “The Blacksonian”) or National Museum of African Art are givens when in the nation’s capital, but the National Gallery of Art is hosting both Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940-1950 (through February 18) and Dawoud Bey: The Birmingham Project (through March 24).

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This holiday season is also a great time to catch Kadir Nelson’s portrait of Henrietta Lacks, “the mother of modern medicine,” hanging in the National Portrait Gallery before it leaves on April 1. And at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, artist Bill Traylor, whose life and art spanned slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Great Migration and ended just prior to the civil rights movement, has been given a retrospective. Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor runs through March 17.

At Newseum, free speech is celebrated with 1968: Civil Rights at 50, revisiting “the tumultuous events that shaped the civil rights movement in 1968, when movement leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, unleashing anger and anguish across the country.”

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Hopefully you—and maybe, the fam—will get out and get some culture this holiday season. But admittedly, our motives are somewhat selfish: We just love seeing other black folks in the museum. Happy Holidays!

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About the author

Maiysha Kai

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door. Minneapolis born, Chicago bred, New York built. Nuance is her superpower.