At a time when America is grappling with deep-rooted, seemingly intractable racial issues, it’s time for a frank conversation about black identity. We recorded this Fresh Art International podcast episode with artist Amy Sherald before a live audience at moniquemeloche gallery in Chicago. Ever critical of African American cultural history and the traditional representation of black bodies, Sherald embeds a strong sense of self in her subjects. She sets them free from the constraints of their past.
Born in Georgia in 1973 and now based in Baltimore, Sherald negotiated her early years as a minority in a mostly white community. The experience of living in between cultures and races is ever present in her work. Artists such as Bo Bartlett, Barkley Hendricks, and Kerry James Marshall inspire the narrative quality of her paintings. Each portrait depicts a friend or acquaintance of the artist. Dressed in vivid fashions, and suspended against deep-hued color fields, they transcend the everyday. The way Sherald renders skin tone in shades of gray by mixing Naples yellow and black oil paint adds to the sense of otherworldliness in her paintings, effectively masking an element of identity that might put these individuals at risk in today’s fraught social landscape.
Here’s an excerpt from “Being Themselves: The Portrait Paintings of Amy Sherald,” by Dawoud Bey, as published in the exhibition catalogue for Amy Sherald’s A Wonderful Dream at moniquemeloche, Chicago, June 2016:
Amy Sherald’s paintings don’t just stay politely on the wall. They push into the viewers’ space, creating an experience that is both an experience of the painted object, but more deeply, an intimate engagement with the subjects inhabiting her work. I say inhabiting because of the palpable sense of physical presence with which she imbues them. The fundamental trope in the making of portraiture is to create a psychological and emotional experience of the depicted subject that is credible enough that the viewer then begins to have an experience of the subject that in some ways transcends its quality as an object. Through idiosyncratic gestural nuance, direction of the gaze, and something which might be called “the fullness of human description,” we become almost involuntarily engaged. Sherald brings all of these devices to bear on black bodies, which changes something, if not everything. What changes are the ways that the history of the representation of black subject in visual culture is equal to the heightened and fraught social narrative of race.
Dawoud Bey is an artist and professor of art at Columbia College Chicago.
Sound Editor: Jesse McQuarters | Photographs courtesy of moniquemeloche gallery