February 10, 2022 | Deanna Barton, MA, ATR-BC & Zachary D. Van Den Berg, MA, ATR-P, LPC-Associate

In February, we celebrate Black History Month by honoring the labors and contributions of Black art therapists towards their clients, the profession at large, and the world. Let us use this month of national recognition to center Black histories, voices, experiences, and ways of knowing as a catalyst for continued inspiration and visibility in art therapy year-round.

In support of these goals, we have compiled an art therapy specific resource guide, Black History in Art Therapy: A Living Reference & Resource Guide. In it, we share powerful stories documented in blog posts, newsletters, interviews, presentations, videos, and publications. Our aim is to highlight the heterogeneity of Black aesthetics across theory, praxis, pedagogy, and research in art therapy’s past, present, and future. These materials are not only rooted in Black aesthetics, but also (re)circulated and cited by the Black art therapists themselves. Many of the citations listed were gathered by reviewing the references lists of publications by Black art therapists.

We hope this guide will be a living resource for information on Black history in art therapy, and we plan to update it regularly (so please consider bookmarking it!). It is critical that we, as practitioners of a predominantly white profession, embrace a critically humble and reflexive stance by referencing and naming the intellectual labor and contributions of Black art therapists.

What is Black Aesthetics?

We use creative arts therapists Marisol Norris, Britton Williams, and Leah Gipson’s definition of Black aesthetics to frame Black history, experiences, and ways of knowing in art therapy:

“Black aesthetics is broadly defined as the processes and relational meaning-making of peoples racially positioned as Black. It centers the breadth of Black experiences within a world stratified by racial orders…. Black aesthetics engendered the broad practice of “art, criticism, or analysis to explore the role that expressive objects and practices play in creating and maintaining Black life-worlds” (Taylor, 2016, p. 6)…. Black aesthetics must attend to an intersectionality of gender, sexuality, class, disability, religion, and citizenship of Black peoples…. Black aesthetics amplifies, describes, and illuminates the non-monolithic lifeworlds created by and assumed by Black peoples.”

Additionally, bell hooks describes aesthetics as being “more than a philosophy or theory of art and beauty; it is a way of inhabiting space, a particular location, a way of looking and becoming.” In other words, the utility of aesthetics as a way of knowing relies on the understanding of the context—their localized, socio-historical position. By tracing a critical genealogy of Black aesthetics, we aim to suggest a “direct relationship between aesthetics and the ways that racial knowledge about blackness is organized today” in art therapy.

This relationship between Black aesthetics and ways of knowing in the profession is central to the theories and praxes Black art therapists have offered art therapy, such as Afrocentric, Womanist, and Cultural Competent (or Humble) approaches. These are “more than a philosophy or theory of art and [therapy]; [but also, ways] of inhabiting space, a particular location, a way of looking and becoming” art therapists.

How We Can Make the Black History of Art Therapy More Central to our Profession

Information builds communities and brings new social worlds into being. Equitable access to—and the visibility of—information is valuable and central to culture. The availability of information communicates which ways of being, possibilities, futures, approaches, and identities are allowed to be visible and present. Information on Black history and aesthetics in art therapy produces an infrastructure of available supports, networks, resources, and identities that are accessible and valued across professional spheres.

Information activism positions information as a catalyst for building communities, publics, and worlds that potentiate the ways art therapists can collectively make meaning with and connect to the generations that have come before—and will arrive after us. This guide centers Black history as told by Black art therapists, past and present. Their labors radically mark their presence and contributions as an undeniably critical force in the founding, emergence, and development of the profession of art therapy to what it is today.

By (re)circulating and (re)engaging with these texts, art therapists can add texture to their embodied professional presence by contextualizing their practice within the legacies of Black voices, lives, stories, and legacies in art therapy. We, the authors, hope that you will read, watch, and make art in response to the material indexed in the guide. By putting together this guide, we encourage you to embed Black aesthetics across your professional and academic pursuits: through the references in your papers or presentations, the projects and resources you create, and in the coursework you engage in.

Anti-racist work, such as this, should not lay solely on the shoulders of colleagues of color. Through active allyship and humble cultural appreciation, we can engage in “the mutual recognition of racism, its impact both on those who are dominated and those who dominate” to artfully repair to the legacies of harm archived within the Black history of art therapy, and create space for a more just profession.

How Information (Re)Sharing Brings Together Past and Present

Information on Black History in art therapy is indeed precarious. This post serves as an information activist intervention: situating the (re)circulation of information as an ethic of restorative care towards Black voices, stories, and histories. We hope to further develop conditions for more diverse, equitable, and just milieu within art therapy. Engaging with the past by (re)circulating these ways of knowing also enables the next generation of art therapists to collaborate with art therapy’s founders and pioneers as well as today’s leaders and mentors. Such transgenerational collaboration will better unify Black aesthetics in and through art therapy’s collective past, present, and future theory, praxis, research, and pedagogy.

Art Reflection by Deanna Barton, ATR-BC: In Between Past and Future Their stories sit between the pages of journals, papers, and magazines. I read them today, but I wish I had read them yesterday. I pull apart a book. The pages resist. They cling to one another. Decades-old glue is hardened and unforgiving. The book does not want to be dismantled or re-bound. Their rigidness leaves rips and tears – pieces and parts. An assemblage emerges, piecing together the histories. They were more than artists, educators, activists, art therapists – they were knowledge workers pouring into the collective consciousness. We are not just piecing together the past. We are piecing together an image of the future. As practitioner, I witness Black bodies entering the therapeutic space holding pieces of their histories and wondering how to put it all together. As artist, I create pieces to hold it all together. As art therapist, I hold space, welcome creative expression, and strive for healing, rebuilding, and rebinding the histories into an assemblage that is a more holistic image of art therapy in America. Johnson, Deaver, and Doby-Copeland (2021), position sustainability of the field as dependent upon an inclusive history, an examination of political and cultural influences on theory, praxis, pedagogy, and the recruitment and retainment of students of color. We hope that this Black History Month catalyzes centering Black histories as we journey towards a future where the book’s pages are flexible and inclusive.