Born in Chicago in 1918, the artist Charles White always received inspiration from the struggles and triumphs of black people—major historical figures like Frederick Douglass as well as ordinary people like his own mother, who worked as a maid her whole life.
It was White’s mother who bought him his first box of paints, when he was 7 years old. He would go on to earn a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago, where a major retrospective of his work opens this month.
Among the pieces on display is the 1977 lithograph Love Letter III, which pairs a Madonna-like figure with a motif White often used to represent feminine life-giving and creativity: a conch shell.
Ever since the sale at Sotheby’s on Wednesday night of “Past Times,” a monumental painting by Kerry James Marshall with a narrative centered on black experiences, many people have been speculating about which collector or museum might have placed the winning $21.1 million bid. The sale was an auction high for Mr. Marshall, and it was widely reported to be the most ever paid for the work of a living African-American artist.
“I know that this work has found a home in a collection with purpose and an eye toward preserving legacy — that of Sean Combs, and that means a lot,” said Mr. Shainman, who has represented Mr. Marshall since his first show at the gallery in 1993.
The dealer said Mr. Combs was introduced to the painter’s work by a friend and sometime musical collaborator, the hip-hop recording artist and record producer Swizz Beatz. Swizz Beatz is also an avid art collector with his wife, Alicia Keys. Mr. Combs viewed the painting at Sotheby’s before the sale.
With the unveiling Monday at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. of the official presidential likenesses of Barack Obama and the former first lady, Michelle Obama, this city of myriad monuments gets a couple of new ones, each radiating, in its different way, gravitas (his) and glam (hers).
Ordinarily, the event would pass barely noticed in the worlds of politics and art. Yes, the Portrait Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution, owns the only readily accessible complete collection of presidential likenesses. But recently commissioned additions to the collection have been so undistinguished that the tradition of installing a new portrait after a leader has left office is now little more than ceremonial routine.
The present debut is strikingly different. Not only are the Obamas the first presidential couple claiming African descent to be enshrined in the collection. The painters they’ve picked to portray them — Kehinde Wiley, for Mr. Obama’s portrait; Amy Sherald, for Mrs. Obama — are African-American as well. Both artists have addressed the politics of race consistently in their past work, and both have done so in subtly savvy ways in these new commissions. Mr. Wiley depicts Mr. Obama not as a self-assured, standard-issue bureaucrat, but as an alert and troubled thinker. Ms. Sherald’s image of Mrs. Obama overemphasizes an element of couturial spectacle, but also projects a rock-solid cool.
It doesn’t take #BlackLivesMatter consciousness to see the significance of this racial lineup within the national story as told by the Portrait Gallery. Some of the earliest presidents represented — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson — were slaveholders; Mrs. Obama’s great-great grandparents were slaves. And today we’re seeing more and more evidence that the social gains of the civil rights, and Black Power, and Obama eras are, with a vengeance, being rolled back.
On several levels, then, the Obama portraits stand out in this institutional context, though given the tone of bland propriety that prevails in the museum’s long-term “America’s Presidents” display — where Mr. Obama’s (though not Mrs. Obama’s) portrait hangs — standing out is not all that hard to do.
Mr. Wiley, born in Los Angeles in 1977, gained a following in the early 2000s with his crisp, glossy, life-size paintings of young African-American men dressed in hip-hop styles, but depicted in the old-master manner of European royal portraits. More recently he has expanded his repertoire to include female subjects, as well as models from Brazil, India, Nigeria and Senegal, creating the collective image of a global black aristocracy.
In an imposingly scaled painting — just over seven feet tall — the artist presents Mr. Obama dressed in the regulation black suit and an open-necked white shirt, and seated on a vaguely thronelike chair not so different from the one seen in Stuart’s Washington portrait. But art historical references stop there. So do tonal echoes of past portraits. Whereas Mr. Obama’s predecessors are, to the man, shown expressionless and composed, Mr. Obama sits tensely forward, frowning, elbows on his knees, arms crossed, as if listening hard. No smiles, no Mr. Nice Guy. He’s still troubleshooting, still in the game.
His engaged and assertive demeanor contradicts — and cosmetically corrects — the impression he often made in office of being philosophically detached from what was going on around him. At some level, all portraits are propaganda, political or personal. And what makes this one distinctive is the personal part. Mr. Wiley has set Mr. Obama against — really embedded him in — a bower of what looks like ground cover. From the greenery sprout flowers that have symbolic meaning for the sitter. African blue lilies represent Kenya, his father’s birthplace; jasmine stands for Hawaii, where Mr. Obama himself was born; chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago, reference the city where his political career began, and where he met his wife.
Mrs. Obama’s choice of Ms. Sherald as an artist was an enterprising one. Ms. Sherald, who was born in Columbus, Ga., in 1973 and lives in Baltimore, is just beginning to move into the national spotlight after putting her career on hold for some years to deal with a family health crisis, and one of her own. (She had a heart transplant at 39.) Production-wise, she and Mr. Wiley operate quite differently. He runs the equivalent of a multinational art factory, with assistants churning out work. Ms. Sherald, who until a few years ago made her living waiting tables, oversees a studio staff of one, herself.
At the same time, they have much in common. Both focused early on African-American portraiture precisely because it is so little represented in Western art history. And both tend to blend fact and fiction. Mr. Wiley, with photo-realistic precision, casts actual people in fantastically heroic roles. (He modifies his heroizing in the case of Mr. Obama, but it’s still there.) Ms. Sherald also starts with realism, but softens and abstracts it. She gives all her figures gray-toned skin — a color with ambiguous racial associations — and reduces bodies to geometric forms silhouetted against single-color fields.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art has acquired a significant group of works by self-taught African American artists, deepening the museum’s already rich holdings of so-called outsider artists and strengthening its overall collection of art by American people of color. The 24 works include three major assemblages by Thornton Dial, an iron and steel worker, pipe fitter, carpenter, and house painter who lived in Bessemer, Ala., near Birmingham.
The museum also acquired a number of works from Dial’s friends and relatives, and 15 quilts made by several generations of women from Gee’s Bend, a rural Alabama community near Selma. The quilts and assemblages were part of the 1,200-work collection of the Atlanta-based Souls Grown Deep Foundation, an organization devoted to documenting, preserving, and promoting the work of self-taught African American artists from the Deep South.“I think it’s a spectacular addition to the collection and another piece to add to our growing holdings of work by self-taught artists,” Timothy Rub, head of the museum, said Wednesday.
Rub said the acquisition, a partial gift from Souls Grown Deep and partial purchase, “fills in … an important piece of the story of American art, broadly understood.”
Beyond saying the museum was able to cover the discounted cost of the works with its own funds, Rub declined to discuss the purchase price or the discount provided by the foundation to facilitate the acquisition.
Maxwell L. Anderson, president of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, said the acquisition fit with the organization’s overall strategy for gaining wider appreciation for the work of the artists. He noted that now “important works by African American artists who represent a distinctive voice in contemporary art are represented in [the Art Museum’s] permanent collection.”
“Partnering with the PMA and a growing number of other museums will ensure that the work and history of these artists is accessible to a broad audience,” said Anderson.
Ann Percy, the museum’s curator of drawings, said the museum considered the works to be representative of a “huge part of American art.” “But we didn’t have any,” she said, referring to pieces by self-taught or outsider African American artists from the Deep South. “We think it’s an important aspect of American art that we didn’t have represented in the collection.”
Thornton Dial, who died two years ago, was first inspired as a teenager by the “yard art” displayed on lawns throughout the area. He began constructing sculptural assemblages out of whatever he could find, strongly motivated to express his ideas and feelings about history, slavery, racism, politics, war, spiritual matters, economic dislocation, and homelessness.
The three Dial assemblages acquired by the museum – The Last Day of Martin Luther King (1992), High and Wide (Carrying the Rats to the Man) (2002), and The Old Water (2004) – combine found materials such as steel, tin, wood, carpet, barbed wire, upholstery, driftwood, goat hides, metal pans, broken glass, a stuffed-animal backpack, mop cords, and a broom.
Dial’s assemblages, and the two assemblages each by Lonnie Holley and Ronald Lockett, plus one piece by Hawkins Bolden and another by sculptor Bessie Harvey, provide ample evidence of the “profound subjects” at the heart of the work by these artists.
The celebrated quilt makers of Gee’s Bend have been practicing the art since the 19th century. They have became known in the 21st century as the result of two major traveling exhibitions: “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend,” in 2002, and “Gee’s Bend, the Architecture of the Quilt,” which visitors to the art museum enthused over in 2008.
Work by Mary Lee Bendolph and her daughter Louisiana P. Bendolph is contained within the acquisition. Quilt makers now represented in the collection are Delia Bennett, Nellie May Abrams, Annie E. Pettway, Henrietta Pettway, Loretta Pettway, Martha Jane Pettway, Sue Willie Seltzer, Andrea P. Williams, Irene Williams, Magdalene Wilson (1898-2001), and Nettie Young. The 15 quilts were made between 1930 and 2005. Rub said the works will be on display in the near future.
The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. has commissioned Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald to paint Barack and Michelle Obama’s portraits, respectively, the Wall Street Journal reports. Both portraits will be unveiled next year when they are added to the museum’s collection.
Wiley is known for Old Masters–style portraits of contemporary black sitters. He has occasionally discussed the positive impact Barack Obama’s presidency had on artists creating images of non-white sitters. “The reality of Barack Obama being the president of the United States—quite possibly the most powerful nation in the world—means that the image of power is completely new for an entire generation of not only black American kids, but every population group in this nation,” he told BBC News in 2012.
The Baltimore-based Amy Sherald, who paints minimalist pictures of black Americans is less well-known than Wiley. She has had two shows with Monique Meloche Gallery, and next year will have a solo exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.
The “Mastry” Gallery, created by African-American artist Kerry James Marshall, walks you through Marshall’s journey of making it as a fine artist – a field dominated by whites for centuries. Marshall was born in Alabama in 1955, and as a child was a part of the last wave of The Great Migration to the west, a region still full of promise and opportunity. Marshall’s family settled in South Central Los Angeles and while growing up in Watts, Marshall pursued art and was an active participant in the movement that encouraged an increase of black artists in the art community. All of Marshall’s work contributed to his mission to prove that art by blacks was just as challenging and beautiful as the white art which was typically celebrated.
The exhibit shows Marshall’s earlier works such as “The Invisible Man,” which is a collection of small scale portraits of people using the darkest shades of black, emphasizing Marshall’s idea that black people in society blend into the background. The exhibition displays how Marshall’s work developed, and include many of his large scale paintings.
Marshall changed the style of his work because he realized that a big statement called for a grander canvas. A large three-piece work called “Heirlooms and Accessories,” appears to be a necklace with a woman’s face in it at first glance. However, once one’s eyes adjust to the painting, fine lines start to become more distinct, and it is clear that there is a lynching occurring in the background. The faces in the painting are witnesses at the lynching, and the expressions of indifference are utterly shocking. While “Heirlooms and Accessories” seem to be referring to the necklaces, accessories serves as a double meaning because it also refers to those who were accessories to murder. This is a prime example of the depth and meaning behind each of Marshall’s work.
All of the paintings reflect Marshall’s commentary on black identity in the U.S. and in traditional western art. In his piece “Harriet Tubman,” Marshall paints an image of Harriet Tubman on her wedding day, with hands with white gloves essentially hanging this piece of art in a museum. Marshall’s feeling that museums are responsible for the lack of black art is portrayed in this piece. Museums typically hold the standard of what is beautiful and worthy, and Marshall makes the direct statement of what should be celebrated in this work.
The exhibition is especially engaging because of the varying emotions each work provokes. While pieces such as “Slow Dance,” which illustrates two people peacefully dancing, provokes calmness and peace, other pieces express injustice and anger. Marshall’s versatility and innate talent for art is clear as his work consists of completely different mediums and subjects. The exhibition allows you to fully observe all of Marshall’s different forms of art and varying ideas, and is not limited to a specific time period or brand of art.
Marshall’s range of mediums and subjects include large to small scale, canvas paintings to comics, common people to historical figures, and glittery mediums to the blackest of paint. This ability to effectively utilize different forms of art makes Marshall a unique artist, and a unique person who has learned to effectively communicate in a way people of all race, gender, and social class can understand. Marshall’s works are visually stunning to say the least, and his success in spreading the meaning of his art and pursuing his career despite the circumstances of racial discrimination, is truly inspiring.
Kim Drew has been photographed in all shades of lipstick.Chalk-white, indigo — like she’s just had a Slurpee. When she walked into the Black Art Incubator on a recent Thursday, it was with red lips and a navy dress fit for a tennis court. At her chest hung a white pipe fragment, bought in Miami. “I wish I could remember the artist who made it,” she fretted when I admired the necklace.
She looked punk and prep, red-white-and-blue speared with a pipe. It’s a tension that shapes Drew’s work. She runs social media for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but she’s credited with starting a slow-burn revolution via Tumblr, arguably the lowest-fi gallery there is. Her high-traffic account Black Contemporary Art — a simple visual catalog of work by black artists — operates on the premise that black artists have been left out of art history. She slots them in without bitterness. “It’s either that people are recorded, or they’re not,” she tells me matter-of-factly.
That same current of low-key, savvy correction undergirds the Black Art Incubator, Drew’s new project, birthed with three other black women also in their twenties. Billed as a “social sculpture,” the incubator takes blackness — and all that racial identifier suggests about what a person might know or feel — as a given. To see the space as a critique, Drew says, is reductive. The project isn’t so much oppositional as an inversion of what we tend to expect. “Most art institutions are rooted in whiteness, but it’s implied, it’s this normalized thing,” she says. With the project, “we’re normalizing being rooted in blackness without beating people over the head with it.”
Drew and her co-founders — Jessica Bell Brown, an art historian, and Jessica Lynne and Taylor Renee Aldridge, both art writers — took a year to build the space and its offerings. “We still have a running group text,” Drew notes wryly. “It’s very internet. Very 2016.”
In practice, it wends a little 1960s. The incubator lives through August 19 at Recess, a residency space on the Lower East Side. The feel is of a secret clubhouse, convivial with an insider edge. You get the sense that while anyone is welcome, Berkeley coffeehouse–style, there’s more fun to be had if you’re part of the group. At quieter times, those anxieties recede; the space charms. A bench hugs the front window. Plants flare against white walls. Ginger cookies, mint tea, and a soulful Spotify playlist are all on tap.
Black Art Incubator
41 Grand Street
Through August 19
During structured hours, there are sessions: Talks fall into two genres (“art and money” or “archive”), while “office hours” and “open crits” mimic MFA programming — but with the expectation that “you know who Richard Wright is,” as the legendary East Village artist Sur Rodney (Sur), who recently gave a talk, puts it to me via phone. The incubator interests him for how it overturns expectations of knowledge, eschewing the usual canon in favor of one not often taught in schools. “There’s a certain standard, a bibliography of material that we’ve all had to study,” he says, citing Moby Dick and Charles Dickens. On top of playing that game, people of color “have to do all this other research to understand where they fit in.”
Joshua Moton, a cellist who performed at an open crit last month, has experienced this firsthand. He explains the bodily discomfort his training in the European classical tradition gave him. In college, he found jazz. “Coltrane, Ayler, Silva, Davis,” he says. “I was able to heal,” to find “parts of the cello that I never really thought were there.” While crits are known as stress-bombs in academia, Moton says his — led by Adrienne Edwards, the dynamic curator-at-large of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, clad in metallic pants — felt like a “safe space.”
Therapeutic spaces face similar accusations as art schools over what their members tend to assume about their peers, whether to do with money, access, or personal history, and the incubator also addresses those issues. Moton, for one, returned the next day for a meditation hour. Here, too, he felt a difference. He drew a contrast for me, mentioning a yoga class he recently attended in which an Australian woman near him went on about “wage slaves,” throwing off his balance. “What does it mean to have a black space?” he asked. “When you can be a black person and breathe and not feel off.”
JUST LAST month, Akilah Johnson was “surprised and overwhelmed” when she learned that she was a national finalist in the “Doodle 4 Google” contest for grade-schoolers.
Akilah, a sophomore at Eastern Senior High School in Northeast Washington, has just been named Google’s big winner in the national contest, topping the 53 state and territory champions, whose work had been culled from about 100,000 student entries.
“It is really overwhelming,” Akilah tells The Post’s Comic Riffs, minutes after receiving the news Monday during a ceremony at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. “I was so excited, I started crying,” Akilah says. “I didn’t even look at anybody — I was just looking at the framed copy [of the Doodle] they gave me.”
Akilah is the contest’s first winner from Washington, as D.C. was not eligible to enter the states-only competition in past years. (The Post’s Comic Riffs had joined the chorus of voices urging that the District be included.)
In the practical world, there are myriad shades of black. For artist Toyin Ojih Odutola, this quandary doesn’t frustrate: It inspires.
In an August 2013 interview, the Nigerian-American portraitist recalled a moment of revelation: “I’m doing black on black on black, trying to make it as layered as possible in the deepness of the blackness to bring it out. I noticed the pen became this incredible tool. The black ballpoint ink on blackboard would become copper tone and I was like, ‘Wow, this isn’t even black at all!'”
Layering shades and types of black media, she realized, could bend how the colors presented in surprising ways. “The blackboard was like this balancing platform for the ink to become something else,” she said.
“Ballpoint pen ink is the reason I draw the way that I do,” Ojih Odutola told The Huffington Post via email. Though in the past decade of work she’s incorporated other media such as charcoal and marker into her repertoire, she’s continued to explore the themes of skin, blackness and perception in her portraiture.
“Growing up in America as a black individual,” said Ojih Odutola, who was born in Ife, Nigeria, and later moved to the U.S., “you can walk into any room and your skin is the first read. From this reality, I treat the skin of my subjects as an arena to expose contradictions — to expand and constrict.”
Her portraits, whether of white or black subjects, layer white on white and black on black, bringing out the texture and sheen of the skin rather than the shade or color we might typically perceive. “I build and build upon the surface various striations in layers,” said Ojih Odutola. “Some may describe them as anatomical, sinewy or aesthetically reminiscent of hair. This style is none of those things: it’s about texture, tactility and mezzanines.”
What does that say about identity, but more interestingly, what does that say about what we are accustomed to seeing when we see an image of a face or bodies? Toyin Ojih Odutola
By distorting the representation of a quality that silently governs so much of America’s social prejudices and injustices — skin color — her work pushes us to look at everything else about the subject.
“I became infatuated with this idea of filtering and transforming. Taking something concrete and very direct … and messing it up,” she explained. “It wasn’t about masking the source, but about stretching how an image can be transformed, what it can become, how it can be misleading and also revealing.”
Ojih Odutola found she wanted to question, more and more, how her work deconstructed our default views of identity, she said. She’d ask herself as she worked, “What does that say about identity, but more interestingly, what does that say about what we are accustomed to seeing when we see an image of a face or bodies?”
Unlike classical portraits, Ojih Odutola’s may not even be recognizable to the subjects. “I never looked at portraits as indicative of the sitters in any way,” she explained. “I looked at portraits as a means for the artist to create his or her own space to invent.” As a Nigerian-American immigrant, finding a space of her own has been particularly vital. “It helps me deal with that lost, powerless feeling of wandering around as a Nigerian-American kid not feeling like the ground I was stepping on could truly be mine … I wanted to create my own terrain.”
In the landscapes she’s created of her subjects’ very skin, Ojih Odutola has succeeded at creating her own terrain; but more than that, she’s found a way to help us all, slowly and deliberately, re-envision how we can see each other’s faces and bodies, without easy categorizations.
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s “Of Context and Without” will be on display from Dec. 11, 2015 through Jan. 30, 2016 at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City. Check out more from the show below, and find more from the artist at her website.
Tuskegee University in Alabama received a donation of four paintings by the late artist Benny Andrews from the United Negro College Fund. The paintings have a value of more than $100,000.
Andrews is known as an abstract expressionist. Many of his works are images from his childhood in Georgia. Andrews died in 2001.
Brian L. Johnson, president of Tuskegee University, stated that the university “thanks both the UNCF and the Berry Andrews Foundation for this wonderful gift that will further enhance the university’s aesthetic, artistic, and cultural appeal to both students and visitors worldwide. I was Benny Andrews’ wish to share his artworks and legacy to inspire African American artists, art enthusiasts, and students around the country.”
Nene Humphrey, the artist’s widow and president of the Andrews Humphrey Family Foundation said “the placement of these artworks will enhance Benny Andrews’ legacy and provide an opportunity to educate new audiences about this work.”