Contemporary Artists of Color and the Return of Portraiture
Jaws dropped in February, 2018 when the official portraits of former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama were unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. The Obamas’ selection of the artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald represented a number of firsts: the painters were the first African- Americans commissioned to create official presidential portraits, and the first to take a non-traditional aesthetic approach to the task. (Most official presidential portraits are sober, realistic likenesses with few artistic flourishes.) But there was another “first” about the Obama paintings when they were first revealed, unfolding on cable news and online: people all over the world were talking about the meaning of portraiture. Observers lavished praise on the paintings and singled them out for criticism, adopted them as lock screen images on their smartphones, photoshopped themselves into the graphic gown that Michelle wears in her painting, or into the lush field of greenery that surrounds Barack in his. Were they “accurate”? Were they dignified? Did they reflect appropriately the office? Did they send the right message? It’s hard to remember when an official portrait triggered this kind of conversation in the artworld, much less on Twitter.
The excitement for the portraits translated into record attendance at the National Portrait Gallery. In
an interview with Hyperallergic in April, NPG Director Kim Sajet said that over 175,000 people had visited the museum in February, which was more than any one month in the past three years, and over 35,000 people visited on March 24th, the same day as the March For Our Lives. Portraiture, it seems, is not only “back” from
its exile in favor of non-figurative abstraction, but it is perhaps more broadly popular than it has ever been. It has also become a favored genre of contemporary artists of color. Kehinde Wiley, multimedia artist Titus Kaphar, and ceramist Roberto Lugo have all mined western history for scenes and contexts that lend a triumphant air to their subjects, which range from Barack Obama to Frederick Douglass. Historic figures in period costume populate their work, upending narratives about founding fathers, slaves, and American identity. What’s at stake isn’t style, however, but status.
Painters depict human figures in their work frequently, but most of these representations are not portraits in a strict sense. Craftsmen and designers have done so for centuries. Black people are not absent from decorative arts history, but they’re nearly always cast as supporting characters: an exaggerated “blackamoor” figure holds up a sconce, or an unnamed exotic woman appears in a scene from a run of 19th century wallpaper. Portraiture, as distinct from depiction, privileges the sitter in some way. Historically, this has usually meant wealth or influence. For the most part, only people occupying a high office of some kind, or with the means to hire a portrait painter, have had their likenesses committed to canvas. The use of models to aid painters creating genre scenes or Bible stories is a long- held artistic practice that scrambles the identity of the sitter. Caravaggio’s Boy Holding a Basket of Fruit was probably intended to evoke the image of a classical figure, but in reality, the “boy” was a late 16th century Roman teenager. Portraits of people of color are vanishingly rare: Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja captures the image of a Spanish painter who was born into slavery ca. 1606, freed by Velázquez, and employed as his assistant in Madrid. We make direct eye contact with de Pareja in the painting, when we’re not admiring his fine collar. It is dignified, distinctive, and full of character.
So when black artists choose portraiture as a medium, they’re drawing on a complex history in Western painting that has long depicted people of color, but rarely accorded them the formal recognition that a portrait confers. A new exhibition called “Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today,” curated by Dr. Denise Murrell is currently on view at the Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University. Murrell’s project pivots on this question of depiction versus portraiture, looking at the representation of black figures, specifically women, in Western painting from the Impressionist movement to the present day. Edouard Manet’s 1863 work Olympia, which depicted French model Victorine Meurent in a pose reminiscent of Titian’s 1538 Venus of Urbino, looking daringly at the spectator. An artist’s model named Laure posed for the figure of the maid holding flowers. Poised on the edge of subjecthood, Laure’s position in Olympia perfectly exemplifies the black subject in modern Western painting coming into focus very slowly.
Contemporary female artists are deftly tracing the trajectory from their own images moving from the background to the foreground. In her series “Cargo Cults,” California-based artist Stephanie Syjuco made a series of self-portraits designed to evoke historical ethnographic photographs, wearing mass-market clothing styled as highly patterned “ethnic” garb. The images suggest an ongoing struggle to reconcile a sense of self at odds with what others see. The gulf between how a woman of color sees herself compared with historical depictions of her forebears is one of the less obvious subjects of Amy Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama. It’s not depicted in the painting itself, but it’s implied by the work’s institutional setting and the fact of its existence. When interviewed about Sherald’s portrait of her, Mrs. Obama remarked that she was especially keen to think of the future generations of young girls of color who would see her portrait and recognize in it someone who looked like them. More specifically, Sherald’s painting puts the visage of a prominent woman of color somewhere she has rarely been in the past: at the center of the frame.