Apr 15, 2021 1 min, 36 secs
Referred to as ‘the greatest artist you’ve never heard of’, Bill Traylor’s compelling life is put under the spotlight in a new documentary.

Bill Traylor had already lived a full life before he was born as an artist.

The new film Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts introduces to a wider audience one of the most important American artists of the 20th century, whose life traversed slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, the Great Migration and each’s accompanying tumultuous social and political upheaval.

As the art critic Roberta Smith proclaims in the film, Traylor is “probably the greatest artist you’ve never heard of”.

Film-maker Jeffrey Wolf clearly remembers his first exposure to Traylor’s work, just before the landmark 1982 exhibition Black Folk Art in America, 1930–1980, at Washington DC’s Corcoran Gallery.

And it illuminates the oft-overlooked Reconstruction period: Traylor’s art is the sole body of work made by a black artist of his era to survive.

Chasing Ghosts also situates Traylor’s life and work in the context of the history at that time and place.

In addition to archival photographs and footage and perspectives from contemporary artists, curators, academics and Traylor’s descendants, the film employs snippets of dance, poetry and prose to emphasize the themes in his life and work, and period music underscores the colorful, kinetic artworks’ comparisons to blues and jazz?

Although the first major exhibition of Traylor’s work wasn’t shown until 30 years after his death in 1949, he is now regarded among America’s greatest self-taught artists (an imperfect qualifier, to be sure)

The groundbreaking 2018 Smithsonian exhibition was the first major retrospective ever organized for an artist born into slavery; last year one of Traylor’s works, a gift from Steven Spielberg to Alice Walker, sold for a record at auction

Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts is available in virtual cinemas and selected cinemas in the US on 16 April with a UK date to be announced

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