Amy Sherald‘s paintings give a fascinating insight into how an artist tackles issues of race in the context of the visual image. The question of race is complex, a torrid mix of history, economics, sociology, religion and politics and while we may believe we live in a post racial society the fact is we don’t. It is ever present, quietly fermenting, an undercurrent of hatred passed down through generations.
These paintings by Sherald are, in some ways, more relevant than ever before. In a world of recession and the failure of Capitalism racial tensions will always rise, blame will be passed and those without the historic opportunities afforded to the privileged, the educated, the wealthy will fall to the bottom. Left in a hopeless position.
So look closely. Examine these portraits. Notice the lack of skin colour. Sherald has removed it and replaced it with grey. Her subjects neutralised yet still black, still recognisably not white. In juxtaposition to this she has placed them in an ambiguous space, out of context, in roles befitting traditional white stereotypes. It is a simple exercise but has wit and an underlying truth that asks us questions the very second we lay our eyes on the picture. What is wrong with the picture? Why does the portrait seem out of kilter? What is nagging at me? What don’t I get?
These are the initial questions, the objective questions relating directly to the image. But what of the bigger picture? That of race, class. What does our reaction to Sherald’s portraits say about us, about society?
Here’s what she has to say about her work:
My work began as an exploration to exclude the idea of color as race from my paintings by removing “color” but still portraying racialised bodies as objects to be viewed through portraiture. These paintings originated as a creation of a fairytale, illustrating an alternate existence in response to a dominant narrative of black history. I am using historicism and race, not to be provocative, but to find some meaning within the ideas of self-actualization and the evolution of identity as a reaction to external directives.
The scope of my experiences involving race materialized from my upbringing in the south. While attending private schools and being one of two or three black children, I was raised to be conscious of how I acted, spoke and dressed. This performing aspect of my identity was cultivated from the beginning of my schooling. I learned this was the key to my social acceptance and assimilation. Drawing from these experiences, I am engaging from a personal perspective with the desire to extrapolate meaning on how identity is both constructed and performed within political, social, economic and cultural spheres.
Each painting starts with a chance encounter of an individual that embodies certain resonating characteristics. I am continually searching for models and creating costumes for each character. Although the figure is painted in gray I photograph the models in color, and the skin color is then translated into gray on canvas by using black and naples yellow. I place the figure within an atmospheric background that represents a liminal space as opposed to one that would provide a context of place or time. Creating the impetus for the viewer to truly come face to face with the painted figure as if they are on stage underneath a spotlight. The liminality of the background also represents the amorphous personal space of my own existence within the context of black identity and my search for ways to clarify and ground it.
Identity interests me not only within the backdrop of my experiences in the south, but also from a global perspective. This had lead to my examination of social implications of increased interconnectedness among the world’s populations. Currently, I am working on ideas for multi-figure portraiture of similar or contradicting characters and stories between subjects.