What is a Portrait? Black American Portraits at LACMA
“I promise you the floor plan is nothing like the model” – Pusha T
What is a portrait? Is it just a snapshot of a face? A seizing of the moment of human expression? Or is it more? Many believe that portraits have a way of capturing a personality, a human essence if you will. Portraits are used to remember loved ones, honor distinguished citizens who gain honors through achievement and capture the emotions of a subject with an ability to extract feelings that arrest the viewer with their presence.
When I think of the term Black American Portraiture, I immediately see the images of Gordon Parks from LIFE Magazine, Howard Bingham’s iconic photos of a prime Muhammad Ali, or more recently, the portraits of artist Deana Lawson who unapologetically documents black life with an eye for consistency. More recently across the contemporary art world, black portraiture has become a hot item among top collectors and mainstream museums who jump at the chance to feature these works at luxury branded events and solo presentations worldwide under the guise of collection correction. This global focus on black portraiture and black figurative work sometimes feel like a collection of people all over again as the speed at which these works are bought and sold – sometimes returning very high profits for the seller – makes me feel a bit uneasy.
The exhibition Black American Portraits on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is a collection of contemporary portraiture through a variety of mediums demonstrating the essence of its African-American subjects. This presentation was the last hurrah of the Curator of Contemporary Art, Christine Kim, who recently departed the museum for London and a new position at the Tate Modern. This show is a tribute to the late David Driskell, a well-regarded artist, curator, and pioneer for the arts who was the ultimate champion for the awareness, exhibition, and collection of black artists by institutions. His seminal exhibition Two Centuries of Black American Art, which took place at LACMA in 1976, was the first comprehensive survey of African American art. The participating works in the show were selected from the LACMA collection, local and international gallerists, and collectors whose holdings make them very important people when talks of donations, loans, and family bequeathments come about.
I arrived at LACMA’s campus excited, negative COVID test in hand, marching toward the Broad Contemporary Art Museum only to be redirected to the Resnick Pavilion. BCAM is usually the venue for major exhibitions on LACMA’s campus (even more lately since the construction on the expansion began) and I would think that an exhibition of this magnitude and relevance would carry enough weight to be housed in the building. Especially accompanied by The Obama Portraits, which were on tour from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. and were on view to the public in an adjacent gallery, showcasing the ultimate visitor attraction.
I had the same feeling about Los Angeles icon Bette Saar’s exhibition titled Betye Saar: Call and Response which was staged in a small and seemingly insignificant gallery space in the same building in 2019. I wondered – with such a breadth of work and being a hometown hero – why Betye Saar would be relegated to such a modest presentation? I hoped as I entered the Resnick Pavilion, that the Black American Portraits exhibition wouldn’t revive those same sentiments. As I entered, I was immediately met by the BLKNWS programming, an installation by Los Angeles-based artist and filmmaker Kahlil Joseph. The work is video-based content of current and historic events involving the African American community distributed across two screens that display or support the imagery on view. The content is regularly updated by the BLKNWS team and is truly a bright light in the public coverage of black people across the world. This work was unveiled with the Hammer Museums’ Made in L.A. 2020: A Version, but my first encounter with it was at Hank’s Mini Mart in Southwest Los Angeles and I fell in love with it instantly.
Black American Portraits features over 140 works in different mediums with hopes of examining African-Americans as subjects over the last two centuries. As I stepped into the gallery, I stood, I thought, out of the walkway to get an overall sense of how the exhibition should be approached and if there were any additional guides to help visitors navigate the multitude of works on view. I was eventually tapped by the museum security to move to the side because I was blocking the entry just a tad. (laughs)
I eventually found myself in front of the wall that displayed the crimson red exhibition title and statement, hoping to browse the selection with a sense of direction from the curatorial staff. There were a variety of starting points where one could begin their viewing experience. I wonder if that was the intent of the curator? Keeping the flow open and allowing the viewer to navigate the story in their way. Almost like the mind-bending albums of Grammy-winning music artist and Los Angeles native Kendrick Lamar, the starting point is wherever you decide to begin.
The paintings in the show are arranged in a salon-style with no upfront correlation or timeline. The portraits, seemingly grouped, feature images of blue-collared African-Americans in the workforce alongside sleek and sharp presentations of dignitaries and celebrities filled with color. I began with the portrait closest to the vinyl description which happened to be “Portrait of a Sailor”, a small (compared to other works on the wall) oil work showing a distinguished black man in a striking blue sailor’s coat and a bright red scarf resting comfortably around his neck. He is standing proudly in position against a backdrop of a sailing ship. The sailor looks with confidence as the clouds that shape the background give way to the impending storm, masking the beautiful sunset. The work was painted circa 1800 with a question mark as to whom the subject in the portrait is referencing. Researchers have the name “Paul Cuffe”, a businessman and sailor, as the subject in the painting. Even still with some doubt, as the original artist is not identified and probably no longer alive to even confirm it. The painting has an interesting history as its authorship has been in question for decades with Christie’s London first attributing it to artist John Singleton Copley in 1952.
In the first grouping of works, I was drawn to a painting by local art legend Dr. Samella Lewis with her portrait of Warren Kenner. Created in 1948, this oil work shows Kenner in thought, possibly sitting for the artist. Wrapped in a wood-like frame and highlighted with gold that seemed to illuminate the subject, it gave a sense of importance, maybe a familial or platonic relationship with the artist. Portrait of a Negro (Claude McKay), 1944 by Beauford Delaney, and The Conductor, 1941 by Charles Alston are very similar in presentation, showing black men posing for photos in what appears to be their work uniforms. I love the relationship of the works as they speak to African-Americans making their way into corporate America while still maintaining the challenging labor positions that help to sustain the country.
Leading the next group of works with a bounty of color are Portrait of a Cultured Lady, 1948 by Archibald Motley, Jr, and the portrait of the legendary singer Marian Anderson in 1944 by Laura Wheeler Waring. Both subjects are donning glamorous threads for their respective professions with a solid bold color (Waring’s Marian in Red and Motley Jr’s Cultured Lady in a deep purple) indicating strength, however, the works appear very soft and share the presence of parts of another painting (I wonder which artists?) alluding to their attention and participation in culture.
Following this group was a very profound juxtaposition of paintings and drawings and possibly the best combination of portrait placement in the entire exhibition. Sharecropper, 1943 by John Biggers, and Sharecropper, 1952 by Elizabeth Catlett sit atop this grouping and offer different gazes (male and female) of their subjects reflecting the veracity of black workers throughout history.
Thurgood Marshall, 1956 by Betsy Graves Reyneau along with Frederick Douglass, 1950, and Portrait of Tom Bradley, 1974 (The City of Los Angeles’ Mayor from 1973-1993) by the legendary Charles White rounded out this group of paintings. These works demonstrate the hierarchy and timeline of the growth of a people, paying tribute to the multitude of the African-American experience in the United States. From sharecropping to occupying seats on the Supreme Court, the work expresses the assimilation of African-Americans politically and economically, and the individuals whose efforts helped pave the way to equal inclusion in American society.
I do believe that the proper spacing and additional information would have enhanced the importance of each of these works. Seeing them individually with a concentrated focus would allow the context to be fully respected in conjunction with the artistic talent displayed. Although, viewing them together spoke to a narrative that sometimes goes underappreciated.
As I made my way toward the end of the first wall of the collection, I paused to enjoy works by Alice Neel (Horace Cayton, 1949) and Eldzier Corter (The Couple, 1949). Neel’s work presents Mr. Cayton, an activist, and journalist, seated in dark oiled tones of blue, black, and gray contrasted by a colorful green, orange and yellow tie. Demonstrating a no-nonsense approach, Neel captures Cayton as an attentive but gentle man, legs-crossed and ready to tackle stories head-on.
I started to feel that as I got closer to the end of the first wall there was a constant fight for my attention. I focused on Benny Andrews’ For Colored Girls, 1977, as I am a huge fan of his multi-fabric-infused canvas works. They excite my idea of subjects reaching out and touching the viewer, even if it’s only just an illusion. In For Colored Girls, he continues that practice as his subject – an older woman – sits in a fabric-covered chair with a tweed hat, next to a group of flowers that match the orangish-red strokes in her dress. Her blouse, seemingly made of canvas, hangs off the shoulders as it would if the woman were right in front of you, adding more concentration to the importance of threads in the subject’s life.
Resting above Andrews’s work was Betye Saar’s Phrenology Man with Symbols, 1966, and Jacob Lawrence’s The Studio, 1996, which reminds me heavily of Derrick Adams’ work with its diametrical shapes that form human compositions.
David Driskell’s Jazz Singer, (Lady of Leisure, Fox), 1974 seemed to be somehow hidden amongst the other paintings even though its size would have you think otherwise. I’ve recently started to appreciate the work of David Driskell after researching more on his contribution to the history of black collage and the role it plays in storytelling. He was incredibly instrumental in shaping the narrative around black visual identity in fine art. I’m excited to explore his career and work further in forthcoming writings.
As soon as you turn away from the David Driskell work you are smacked in the face with the coolest work in the whole show. Photo Bloke, 2016 by Barkley Hendricks is a beautifully bright, salmon-shaded work featuring a black male – dressed in a similar salmon suit – properly highlighted through Hendricks’s knowledge of the hue spectrum. This painting shows the enjoyment in the life of “Getting Fresh” and feeling good. Growing up in Philadelphia, I’ve always admired the cool of Hendricks’s images as youth continuing into adulthood. I am truly taken aback by the nostalgia and the accuracy in the translation of each of his works.
The Hendricks piece shares a wall with three massive works by current contemporary art powerhouses. I guess the curatorial team wanted to make a statement within the artist hierarchy as these three artists, Amy Sherald, Kehinde Wiley, and Mickalene Thomas have towering works that unabashedly declare them as the stars of the presentation. It almost makes Barkley Hendricks’s work feel like President Abraham Lincoln on Mt. Rushmore, present but almost insignificant. Sure, you’re there, but are you really?
Amy Sherald’s An Ocean Away, 2020 is the first piece you meet of the “Big 3” and for me, it was a very familiar one. I had recently seen this work in Amy Sherald’s solo show Amy Sherald: The Great American Fact at Hauser and Wirth Los Angeles less than a year ago. It had already reached the floors of a prominent institution. Resembling a couple’s summer trip, Sherald reintroduces the viewer to her palette using levels of gray as skin tone for her subjects. It delivers a stark distinction against the bold hues of the surf gear, surfboards, and saturation of earth colors of sand and sky in the background.
In the center, we have Portrait of Mickalene Thomas, The Coyote, 2017 by Kehinde Wiley. A portrait of the artist Mickalene Thomas as a keeper of wolves in the night. I think Kehinde wanted to show the fierceness of her character as the painting has a very potent presence unlike the visible softness of the Sherald work. The portrait of Mickalene Thomas’s wife, Racquel Chevremont in The Inversion of Racquel, 2021, reminds me of a shiny UNO Card or an old flier I pulled out of my grandmother’s drawer. It’s made of oil and acrylic paints with rhinestones that shimmer against the wood panel. Its composition is undoubtedly familiar with Thomas’s oeuvre as it recreates a very reflective feel of black women in commercial advertisements in the 1970s.
Across from the introductory wall includes a myriad of stories through the works. Reframing the past and reclaiming historical narratives, these works focus on figures of advancement and awareness even amongst turbulence. Genevieve Gaignard’s Trailblazer (A Dream Deferred), 2015, shows variety in the “the look” of blackness in the art world. In the work, in which she is the subject, she stands proudly under a tree holding a framed painting of Rev Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and former President John F. Kennedy, both of whom were assassinated at the heights of their activist and political careers. Renee Cox’s The Signing, 2017 introduces a constituency of Afro-futuristic renaissance posed portraits merged into a single frame reimagining black people as the purveyors of a new reality. Could this be a rethinking of the signing of the Declaration of Independence? But this time, signed by black people?
Atop these works is a piece by Titus Kaphar titled Enough About You, 2016, focusing on a young black youth first hidden in the original version a painting flanked by a majority of white men. In Kaphar’s version, the youth is emphasized by a gold frame accentuating his now importance and silencing, if only for a moment, the chatter about the “greatness” of the white men that surrounded him. The canvas seems to be hardened by a chemical that allows the crumbled form to take its shape and permanently places the black subject in the center of the conversation. Mixed in between are works by Lezley Saar (daughter of the aforementioned Betye Saar) Of a bed of night iris shredding pedals one by one, like the hours of darkness, 2020, Umar Rashid (Yolanda, Lady of Yerba Buena, 2015) and Whitfield Lovell (#3, (After the Card Series), 2009).
Issac Julien’s Serenade (Lessons of the Hour), 2019 plays well with Renee Cox’s The Signing, 2017 as it could appear to be (even though it isn’t) a focused shot of some of the members in preparation for that photo. The still is from Julien’s beautifully directed film with the same title and prominently ponders on the life of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
We come across Kaphar again with Behind the Myth of Benevolence, 2014 which features the image of a young woman, probably Sally Hemmings, the slave and bearer of a child (or children) of Thomas Jefferson. Appearing behind the hanging canvas as the portrait of Jefferson is slowly stripped away, she reveals herself likely nude, hinting at the covered crimes of slave masters. I appreciate the explanation by Kaphar in an earlier interview I read on the digital art website CultureType, in which Kaphar explains the work. He clarifies that it isn’t solely about Hemmings but “a symbol of many of the black women whose stories have been shrouded by the narratives of our deified founding fathers.” This work excites me every time I come across it as I believe it is a brilliant representation of a mix between sculpture, painting, and education.
I loved that Behind the Myth of Benevolence, 2014 is positioned next to Biddy Mason, 2006 by Elizabeth Colomba. The portrait appears sepia with its color scheme but is strong in its message as it presents Biddy as a regal figure, dressed in a black suit or robe. The light shines through her window as an indicator of her importance to a bright future for her people. Mason was a California entrepreneur and philanthropist whose leadership and deeds went highly underappreciated throughout history because of her sex and skin color. These works, like the earlier presentations of the Delaney and Alston paintings, show the growth of the black worker from sharecropper and slave to a noble leader.
In the center of the room sat the more three-dimensional portrait works. Sargent Claude Johnson’s Chester, 1930, is a bronze sculpture with the facial bust of a man with a hand, presumably his own, resting on the right side of his face. The look feels of submission or approval, maybe at a loved one. Allison Saar’s Sledge Hammer Mamma, 1996, is almost three feet in size and takes human form with its fists balled as if it’s ready to take on all comers. The supposed feet of the sculpture have the shape of a sledgehammer which I took to indicate that the power is in the movement, placing one foot in front of the other. The sculpture has visible nails that have been hammered into its frame for stability but also maybe to demonstrate that it’s taken its lumps. Probably explains why it’s ready to fight. Richmond Barthe’s Inner Music, 1956 is a bronze sculpture highlighting the profile of a nude black man, possibly a dancer because of the way he is posed. I wonder if this is the artist’s interpretation of a mixture of elements with Michaelangelo’s David and the Venus de Milo by Alexandros of Antioch? Barthe’s work is undoubtedly something else on my list I’d love to look more into.
Tavares Strachan’s Enoch, 2015-17 is a very interesting project from the LACMA Art + Technology Lab grant recipient as ENOCH brings awareness to the story of Robert Henry Lawrence Jr, the first African-American astronaut selected for the space program. The work takes the royal stance of a sarcophagus but physically takes the shape of a vase or urn. The project was realized through the launching of a 3U satellite with the help of sponsor SpaceX. Augusta Savage’s Gwendolyn Knight, 1934 is a casted homage to her mentee molded in clay and cast in plaster. Knight’s likeness is very firm and feminine showing the maidenly softness of the artist but also the materials of the work speak to her ability to stand firm in her beliefs. I read that not many of Savage’s works are in existence because of minimal funding for bronze casting. Artists are constantly prohibited because of financial burdens. Some things never change throughout time.
Standing away from the sculpture crowd and greeting guests who took the scenic route through the exhibition, was Karon Davis’s Ishmael, 2017. From the collection of UTA Artist Space director Arthur Lewis, Ismael, 2017 is a plaster-based representation of a young boy in a confident stance. It reminds me of the “Fearless Girl” bronze statue by Kristen Visbal on Wall Street in New York City. I love Davis’ plastered sculptures as they feel as if someone is still molding on the inside and their remarkably replicated features, especially the eyes in this work, make me question if Ishmael isn’t still in there.
As you spin around the wall, you find yourself entering the section mostly devoted to photography (there were also a few photos outside of it like but this was majority photo-based). You are welcomed by vivid images that display the gaze of the black photographer. Upon entering the space I was met by a vertical trio of photographs led by Ralph Nelson’s black and white portrait of former President Barack Obama in Untitled (Obama in Mirror, B&W), 2009. I was immediately intrigued by this photo as I see two sides (figuratively and literally) of the former President. The silhouette posterior of the President appears strong, solid, and unwavering while in the anterior shot he appears calm, eyes closed in submission, a subtle entry into the personality of Barack Obama.
Below the Nelson portrait sat a bursting ray and stripes signifying the noise from the horn of Charlie “Bird” Parker in Rico Gaston’s, Bird, 2015. This portrait of “Bird” is miniature in comparison to the bands that overwhelm the composition, almost questioning if the work is about the rays or the legendary musician. At the bottom of the trio sat the work of Deborah Willis and her son, artist Hank Willis Thomas (whose collaborative work Sometimes I See Myself in You, 2008 is also featured in the gallery) depicting almost mirror images of a singular male subject, one being Thomas himself, is reminiscent of a previous familial moment. I’d like to think that the male in the first image is Thomas’ father and the second image is a “Like Father, Like Son” moment where the mother as photographer adores the likeness of her kin.
One of the most prominent pieces on the wall almost directly on the other side of his previous work is Isaac Julien’s The Last Angel of History, 1989/2016 from his Looking for Langston Vintage series. It focuses on a young man dressed in a wing-fitted costume holding a photo of Langston Hughes on a scroll. The photo is very dramatic as if the angel is using the image to represent something he is either answering or demonstrating. Maybe the angel was before God and pleading for the entry of the late poet into heaven?
My absolute favorite photos were of Laura Aguilar, Clothed/Unclothed #34, 1994, and Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled, 1990, from Weems’ kitchen table series. These works spoke about the embracing characteristics of love and family. Showing different scenes of affection – the husband and wife’s interaction in Weems’s work and the father embracing the children in Aguilar’s work – demonstrates different types of love generating the same feeling of comfort and security. Weems’ work also contains a text panel that waxes eloquently about love in the late summer and sets the tone for understanding the history of the love story on view.
I also got a glimpse of works from legends Lorna Simpson (Backdrops Circa 1940s, 1998) and Arthur Jafa (Monster, 1998, Printed in 2017) which shows a young Jafa posing with a menacing look at the camera. In the photo, I can’t tell if that is his hair or the shadows amongst the ceiling but it adds more of a deranged look which may be led to the title.
Deborah Willis’s Living Room Picture Stories, 1994, has photos of what looks like family members in the fabric of the work. This quilted creation reminds me of the term “fabric of our lives” often mentioned in commercials and promotional material about moments. It brings to mind the episode of the TV show Family Matters where the younger granddaughter Laura mistakenly sold the family quilt at an art exhibition. It brought awareness to me of the importance of quilting and what it means to the black community and the history of passing down memories and familial information through knitting. Bisa Butler’s Forever, 2020, a vibrant textile-based representation of the late actor Chadwick Boseman, is one of the best. She gracefully translates the images of her subjects into soft, comforting cloth illustrations. I was fascinated by her exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago which showed the diversity in imagery and consistency of the material in an array of her pieces. Kerry James Marshall’s Black Beauty (Tyla), 2012, is an extremely muted portrait of a black woman softly lit with a bluish hue illuminating the features of her skin, the shine in her earrings, and parts of her shirt. I liken this photo to his paintings which exhibit the dark hues of his figures giving a lesson on the many shades of black.
The gallery also features a collection of gelatin silver prints by James Van der Zee (one of the first black photographers I’ve had the chance to learn about as a youth) including Self-Portrait in Boater Hat, c. 1925, which features the artist donning a derby-style boater hat and a striking black suit. Other works of Van der Zee on view include Marcus Garvey & Garvey Militia, Harlem, 1924, Crowd in Harlem, 1929, Atlantic City, 1930, and Daddy Grace, Harlem, 1938, which shows a man dedicated to a spiritual message with his hands up in submission inside of a place of worship.
Kwame Braithewaite’s Untitled (Clara Lewis Buggs with Yellow Flower), 1962, printed 2020, and Untitled (Carolee Prince Wearing Her Own Designs), 1964, printed 2018 are by far the calmest works in the gallery. The way Braithwaite uses bold color as a way to accentuate his subjects is masterful. Both photos feature eccentric hairstyles and objects of scene definition in addition to the models which help to complete the photo. The objects also do an amazing job of contrasting color as it presents a beautiful offset that intensely drew my focus.
The space also contained editions from Lorraine O’Grady’s famous “Art is…” photography series featuring images (Art Is… (Man with Rings and Child), Art Is… (Nubians), Art Is… (Man with Baby), Art Is… (Unisex Barber Shop), all 1983, printed 2009) from the Harlem African-American parade in 1983. O’Grady’s mission was concentrated on capturing the neighborhood people inside of a golden frame. One of the largest and best iterations of participation art I’ve ever seen. I love seeing the multitude of photos with different scenes each time this work is on view. I find something soothing about them.
Following the O’Grady works are a collection of works whose relationships are stunning. Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas’s forenamed Sometimes I See Myself in You, 2008 reminds me of the classic Source Magazine cover that featured the Death Row records team of Suge Knight, Dr. Dre, and others dressed in all black to make their bodies seem invisible over the emptiness of the black background. Willis and Willis Thomas recreate that moment with a twist. The image presents three portraits. On the left you find Thomas and on the right you find Willis. The portrait in the middle is a mash-up of both of their photos showing the similarities in the gene pool of the family. It’s striking as the features are almost exact but for a few exceptions. D’Angelo Lovell Williams’ Daddy Issues, 2019 shows an arm-wrestling match between two black males, possibly father and son, exercising the age-old duel of old versus new. It’s very interesting because the arm wrestle first starts as a handshake (just as the men are positioned in the photo) but can easily turn into a tussle. Not always physical, but mostly egotistical.
Tourmaline offers an arresting conversation with Swallowtail, 2020, as she engages the audience through the lens of Black-Trans liberation using her self-portrait to elevate ownership of identity. I read an interview with ArtForum where she speaks about “not leaving one’s self out” and reevaluating the practice to also include her journey in the narrative. Todd Gray’s Mirror Mirror, 2014, displays an image of a young black child obscured by a circular photo frame containing a red, orange, and black flower. The child can be seen holding an image that is also hidden by the photo frame. The crack of the wall structure, or possibly an overhead shot of a cracked surface on the ground, add striking earth-toned cool to the image allowing the flowers’ colors to take center stage in the artwork.
A vitrine in the center of the space contained late 19th-century Albumen silver print photographs of unidentified black people sitting for the camera. Some are very small and in beautiful personalized frames, while others are preserved very well and show the postures of families, children, and businessmen of the era. One of the prints, the larger of them, is of the world-recognized abolitionist Frederick Douglass by George Kendall Warren in 1876 – on loan from the National Portrait Gallery.
Before you exit the room, you’re introduced to Barrington and Father, 2021, by the aforementioned Deana Lawson, which shows a father and son – dressed in the styles of their respective generational trends – showing how fashion has changed over the years. Even though trends change, both men remain consistent with the fashions that embody who they are. We all know a few elders in the black community that just won’t let the gators and purple suits go. (laughs) I’m a huge fan of Lawson’s photography as her study in hard-hitting naturalism of contemporary black life always seems to stop me in my tracks with its intimacy.
Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s Darkroom Mirror Study (Ox5A1525), 2017 I believe should’ve been the opening image to the works in this part of the exhibit. This image focuses solely on the camera – the instrument that initiates and records moments of our lifetime – as it sits on a tripod in the portrait position with the artist’s hand as a stabilizing and guiding assistant. This image is relatable to every photo in the room as each artist has undergone the song and dance of photography during their practice and production of their respective works.
Xaviera Simmons’ Sundown (Number twenty), 2018, is more of a photo of a moment. It shows a side profile of the artist holding an ancestral mask in one hand and a printed photo of a black man being pulled from a train by white attackers in the other. The portrait, in this case, is the mask, and the photo is a representation of the constant portrait of racism that continues to plague the world.
The Martine Sims video work Still from Notes on Gesture, 2015 drove me insane (laughs). I am a fan of Sims’s video performance creations but this piece and its audible reach throughout the gallery gave me PTSD and I’m sure parents of small kids were triggered as well. I understand the meaning of gesture recognition, it is truly important to comprehend culture, especially in the black community, but there has to be some consolation for those who grew up with these (laughs). I felt as if I was back at my family’s home surrounded by little cousins and nieces and having to listen to them constantly bicker and repeat the “word of the day” from social media. I tried to tune it out on every visit home, and inside this exhibition, but unfortunately, it never works. The video’s constant repetition also drew ire from the visitors as well as many who heard the work before they saw it, making their engagement with it very minimal. One lady was completely miffed by it, asking if it could be turned off. (laughs)
Kenturah Davis’ A Question Only Answered With Another Question, 2019, is an oil portrait with a painted figure that appears shadowy and creates an aura around itself through swift movement. The artist creates this effect through transparent touches of the oil and rubber stamping. The process is a fascinating one as Davis sometimes includes messages in the work that once repeated on her preferred canvas reveal figures – many times of the artist herself or friends. Jordan Casteel’s Jordan 2020, is a self-portrait in a pinkish hue of the artist sitting calmly in sweatpants on her couch. The main component of the painting (besides the subject) is the pillow that she’s leaning up against as this provides a step away from the dominating hue to provide a vivid burst of coloring centering the work. You also can’t help but notice her collection of books that are on the shelves and the plants that are resting in the background representative of growth and knowledge.
Rafa Esparza’s Big Chillin with Patrisse, 2021, I initially thought was a portrait of MCA Chicago curator Jamillah James, a leading art professional and former curator at ICA LA where Esparza had his solo show “Rafa Esparza: De la Calle”. The show included works in the adobe practice of the artist which I truly enjoyed. This portrait made of acrylic and adobe depicts a black woman lying comfortably on what seems to be a balcony, restfully looking at the viewer, welcoming a heartfelt conversation. Clifford Prince King’s Safe Space, 2020 is an intimate portrait photograph of three black queer men relaxing, grooming, and enjoying each other’s company. It centralizes on one main figure who is receiving a drag of smoke from one of the men holding a joint while braiding the third man’s hair as that man reads a book. The men are seen sitting, lying, and resting against a mattress on the floor of an apartment space, exhibiting the care and candor of black queer relationships.
Kim Dacres’ No my first name ain’t baby, 2020, stems from the harassment of women being catcalled. Made of rubber tires from cars and bicycles, Dacres recreates the bust of a woman with beautiful translations of the hair and accessories. Dacres’ practice is reminiscent of the work of artist Chakaia Booker which combines similar materials in production creating large public art. Dacres’ approach is very subtle in comparison to Booker but doesn’t lack force as the work shows she’s nothing to play with, and her first name surely isn’t “Baby”.
Woody De’Othello’s Blank Faced, 2020, reminds me of a teapot or a funnel that contains the filtered water that gets delivered to homes and offices (laughs). It appears to have a set of ears adding personality to the object. The pot rests or is affixed atop a shiny blue ceramic stool as an honor for its years of use. The ceramics shine with a glaze that reflects smoothly off of the gallery’s lights showing all of the grooves and digs in the finished product. Simone Yvette Leigh’s Stretch Series #1, 2019, shows the glazed stone signature eyeless sculpture with a raised neck reminiscent of African tribe women. I love how sleek her sculptures are and the exclusion of the eyes in her work to me represents a template for the voice of all black women. Her work is very sturdy and present, a testament to the will of the black woman.
I remember the series of works that Glenn Kaino’s, The Invisible Man (Salute), 2018, stems from. A version of this sculpture (or sculpture like this) made its debut during Art Basel Miami Beach in 2016 at Collins Park in Miami, FL. The public version of this sculpture features the figure with both its hands raised, referring to the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” cries that went viral after the murder of Michael Brown in 2014 by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson. The work is a double-sided mirrored silhouette of a figure, with its right hand raised in the black power salute. A portrait that has been heavily reiterated during the social unrests of the country in the last few years.
The final walkway of the exhibition felt very cramped. This is where the salon-style curation went into overdrive and you could feel overwhelmed by the amount of work on the wall. Taking a step back, it felt as if there was an overflow of potential choices for inclusion and instead of going through the process of elimination, the curatorial staff let the ocean just flow. Like the famous meme of Oprah, “You get a space, you get a space, everyone gets spaces!” (laughs).
Kohshin Finley’s Essence and Jihaari, 2020, is a grayish oil portrait of California African American Museum Visual Arts Curator Essence Harden and her husband Jihaari, embracing in front of what looks like their family home. The painting is very nostalgic as the oil adds a smoothness to the portrait that reveals the couple’s expressions, clothing, and atmosphere. I love Finley’s realism in portraiture as he seems to capture the true expression of his subjects with a personal connection between the soul and his brush.
Glenn Kaino’s (Salute (Second Salute), 2019) is a framed golden bust of a gloved fist with the black power salute depicting Olympic medalist Tommie Smith’s iconic moment at the 1968 summer games. The work has an infinite reflection speaking to the multitude of participants in the continuous fight for justice.
Shepard Fairey’s John Lewis: Good Trouble, 2020, was created in the traditional screen print style made famous by the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. Fairey paints a portrait of a youthful John Lewis, the Georgia politician, and activist, who was on the front lines of many of the protests and uprisings of the civil rights movement. Lewis also served in the House of Representatives in the State of Georgia before his passing in 2020. The work is very consistent in branding with many of Fairey’s screen printing projects as he combines red, gold, and a light teal color that can be seen interspersed throughout the work. It also features a quote by Lewis alongside newspaper articles about the “Melee at Selma” in which he and a host of protestors were attacked by local police. Another headline reports on African-American citizens risking their lives for the right to vote in 1964. What a wild time in history that seems to be having a reboot.
Immediately under the Fairey piece, was a work by artist and Black Panther Party member, Emory Douglas with The Black Panther, vol. 2, no. 25, March 9, 1969. The artwork is an ink-on-paper illustration of a young boy selling the Black Panther’s newspaper with a rifle strapped around his back. The newspaper has a front-page headline reading “All Power To The People” prominently in his raised hand. The bright orange of the page invites the urgency of the task at hand and grabs the attention of the viewer instantly.
Calida Rawles’ In His Image, 2021 is a hyperrealistic painting of a black male resting comfortably in a pool of water with his body semi-submerged and his face pointed at the sun. The bluish-green hue of the water dominates the painting, almost dipping you in the water with the male. The skin seems eerily real, almost as if you can touch it. The artist illuminates the essence of the subject making it appear photographic and not touched by a human hand. I am truly enamored with the way that Rawles paints water. It’s as if you can sink your hand directly into her work. I remember being blown away by her water-based works in her solo show at the Various Small Fires gallery space in Los Angeles in early 2020. This is most certainly one of the most sophisticatedly painted pieces in the exhibit.
Fulton Leroy Washington’s Shattered Dreams, 2020 portrays the late Kobe Bryant gazing sorrowfully at the viewer. Wearing a navy blue hoodie with Lakers purple highlights that gleam against the black background, tears made of basketballs can be seen pouring from the eye of the hoops legend ultimately forming a scene of Bryant shooting a jump shot. Washington places cracks in the frame of the late superstar that contain symbols of the city of Los Angeles and the fatal crash site – you can see the smoke rising behind his head – with an indication that Kobe’s death rattled the world like an earthquake. The artist reveals an opening in the skull of Kobe Bryant showing a family portrait exemplifying what was always on his mind. Family. Rest in Peace, Kobe.
When I laid eyes on Numbers and Faces: Multi-Racial Ethnic Combinations Series 1: Face #7. Eduardo Soriano-Hewitt (Black/Filipino), 2020 by Charles Gaines, my first thought was “Is that Tupac?”. There seems to be a merging of many faces of numerous races and at the end of it, it somehow looks like the late Los Angeles-based rapper and activist Tupac Shakur (laughs). Gaines carefully numbers and paints the trajectory of his work on acrylic sheets bringing to mind the paint by numbers style that is usually found at paint and sip parties. The acrylic sheet that the work is painted on summons thoughts of the light bright game from the 1980s where you would place colorful pegs on the light board and create your method from a set of prearranged plans or a custom design. Gaines has perfected this technique and puts it on display in this piece focused on facial combinations and forms to create a singular result. You can see a consistency in the eyes, nose, and mouth of each face but you witness the differences in the subjects when you look toward the top of the head and notice that the hair changes with its color assignment.
Jake, Our Best., 1978-83 by Sam Doyle, is a painting of a man named “Jake” (of course) painted on metal in regular house paint. Doyle’s work recorded the life and times of the Gullah people of Saint Helena Island in South Carolina. “Jake” is posed in the manner of a fighter/boxer, in a fighting stance, but he is holding what looks like a baseball in his right hand. Could Jake be a pitcher? He is dressed in a blue jersey with the initials T.G (or T.B.), brown trousers, a backward hat, and high socks which could convey that he is playing in a cricket or baseball game. The text “Jake, Our Best.” sits atop the subject in white and the work starts to look like a baseball card. Maybe Doyle was looking to create his version of the iconic Honus Wagner baseball card.
Henry Taylor’s She Is Not A Ho, 2005 is a depiction of a young black woman sporting a white blouse with a hand – of what appears to be a man – gripped around her waist. The scene also includes a figure extending an extra-long arm to pour liquor out onto the road (a ritual in the black community for paying respect to a lost loved one). The most interesting part of the painting is the hidden white face at the top right, which was almost impossible to see in the gallery with the work installed way above a visitor’s eye height. The work also draws reference to Rene Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, 1929 – which is also in the LACMA collection – as Taylor adds the signature pipe and quote “Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This Is Not A Pipe)” to the piece as a form of “meta messaging”, hinting at the unfavorable perceptions of the woman. She is NOT a ho, no matter what you think of her bringing clear that the images we see of people don’t always reflect who they are.
Jonathan Lyndon Chase’s butt naked dressed in pearls, 2018 is a mixed media painting that confused the hell out of me. For real. (laughs). It shows a sketched assortment of naked bodies (perhaps men) that are trying on pearls and makeup in a scene of probable grooming. This conclusion was reached by observing pearls and the set of hair clippers that are seen in the bottom right of the scene. The figures are made up of gold and tannish paint and outlined in black, the only actual way you’d be able to recognize a figure in the work – besides a few nipples, the lipstick, and painted circles that cover the anuses of these figures that the artist emphasized throughout the scene. The heavy layering of the gold paint at the top unites with some of the formations, while they sit on what’s presumed to be a purple carpet or mattress. The purple also makes an appearance at the top, blending into the faces of two of the formations. The gold could also be seen in the hair of the figures highlighting their wave-inspired hairstyles. There are two watches in the artwork – not attached to any of the subjects – and five painted lemons (with the outline of a sixth) that threw me for a loop. The artwork could be seen resting against the wall while sitting on three styrofoam doll heads which in my opinion put the already undesirable salon-style curation of the show on an even thinner ice with the presentation.
Sadie Barnette’s (Untitled (Dad, 1966 and 1968), 2016) are portraits of the artist’s father showing his duality as a United States serviceman and a member of the Black Panther Party. Her work caught my attention a couple of years ago when she included her father’s FBI file in an installation that talked about government surveillance. I think she is doing an important duty by reframing the narrative around her father and other black men like him that have had their reputations ruined by unfortunate circumstances placed on them by governments.
Deborah Roberts’, Breaking Ranks, 2018, is a paper collage portrait mash-up of faces forming a young girl wearing a tiara. The child has two sets of arms and hands, one set being the hands of Rosa Parks from a mugshot photo, reiterating the collective trauma passed through history. What draws your eye, other than the number 7053 from the mugshot addition, is the contrasting patterns of the clothing that she’s wearing. Red and white stripes lay calmly under an orange and tan blouse along with a square patterned skirt that exudes the multiple personalities of the collaged subject.
Instantly under Roberts’s work is Chelle Barbour’s Portrait of Madame C.J. Walker, 2018-19, a mixed media collage with the most identifying characteristic being a new set of eyes over the face of Madame Walker. The creation also contains a set of hands holding the hot comb, a symbol for Walker’s industry that she founded. Barbour also adds a cluster of lids from hair product cans that almost look like pennies until you examine them tighter. Her status is also accentuated by the purple bouquet in her hair and feather-based attire. The pennies seem to work as well and maybe even better because Madame Walker was bringing in the coin.
Barbour and Roberts contribute two different approaches to collage work as both have roots based on futurism and realism. Roberts draws on historical conversations that engage the viewer to remember and research. In Barbour’s practice, her futuristic medley of images invites the viewer to reimagine and dream the impossible.
I thought that Kehinde Wiley’s Yachinboaz Ben Yisrael II, 2021 could’ve been the perfect complement to Bisa Butler’s piece if curated in proximity. It would have been an intriguing conversation with each other. Wiley’s signature floral oil-based painting presents a young black man fitted with a cane in a pose of a knight or noble. As in many of Wiley’s works, that floral arrangement conquers the painting and gives the sense that the figure is emerging from the flora. The man is dressed in a very modern style which Wiley uses to relate the current feelings of joy and promise that are in black men. I love the sentiment behind his work as it shines a light of positivity and a feeling of growth and future, especially in times where the visuals you see about us are often non-progressive. The exuberance of color and the celebration of their subjects almost mirror one another and are especially reflective as many young men (like those in Wiley’s paintings) strive to achieve their dreams at great heights as Boseman had before his untimely passing.
Dr. Samella Lewis’s Bag Man, 1996 has probably the best backstory story of all the works in the show. This painting was the second version of the work which Lewis made out of frustration after her request to borrow the original for a show was declined by the collector. Now that’s boss. I wonder how many times that’s been done in today’s art world? This wood-framed oil work shows the image of a worker dressed in overalls with a brown and red mix. His eyes look behind him as he hauls a yellow sack on his back. The painting is set against a solid blue with slight hints of green filled with thick brushstrokes almost jumping out at the observer. Before reading about the work, I wondered if the man had left home or work, or maybe he was just down on his luck with nowhere to go. Upon further investigation, I learned that Lewis was inspired by her memories of trash pick-up men and the social injustices of folks who struggle in the streets. Living in Los Angeles, this work touches on the heart of a growing issue in the city. I love it more each time I see it.
Tatiana Fazlalizadeh’s Nayyirah and Rachel, 2010 is an oil-painted portrayal of queer love (that I felt would’ve gone perfectly with a few of the other works in the show – like the Clifford Prince King work) that features two black women in an intimate show of affection. The woman in the foreground is bare and covers the woman behind her who is also presumably nude, at least in some way, as you can see the blues of what appears to be a dress in the bottom left corner. The woman in the background wears a rose in her hair and kisses the shoulder of the woman in the front while she looks directly at the viewer. I love how the artist uses a presence of light (maybe recited from a reference photograph?) as she extracts the contrast of the different shades of brown in their skin. The rose in the hair of the woman in the background adds softness against the power of the dominant colors of the white background and the brown tones of their skin. I feel the nudeness is them baring their truth to the world and solidifying it with a kiss that symbolizes the love and trust that she has for her “protector”. Fazlalizadeh is known for her larger-scale paste-up work of charcoal-based drawings that are then printed on an extensive scale and pasted around streets and businesses across the country.
Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe is among several Ghanaian-based painters being recognized for their practice in portraiture in today’s contemporary art market. The painting, Lady on Blue Couch, 2019, is overpowered by the assertive orange of the dress, the cool blue of the couch, and the lime green that rests on the wall behind the figure. The subject has a gray skin tone that matches the somber look on her face. She is accented by a set of pearls on her neck and wrist and one earring that is visible within the hairstyle.
Lauren Halsey’s The Crenshaw Hieroglyphic Project: Exterior Wall (featuring Frankie Beverly), 2018 is an exterior wall panel of the proposed structure for the Crenshaw Hieroglyphics Project set to be installed soon by Halsey in Los Angeles. Images carved into gypsum panels depict a group of four women and a man, highlighting their hairstyles – looking like the style choices when you go to a barbershop or hair salon. The word “MAZE” is prominently carved into the t-shirt of another subject that’s missing a head (maybe to be revealed on another panel). Scratched into the panel was the text “Featuring Frankie Beverly”, referring to the legendary band. Halsey’s work has been referred to as “Sculptural Painting” and I have to agree wholly. I first experienced her prototype of the project through her participation in Made in L.A. 2018 at the Hammer Museum, where a blueprint design and installation were revealed. Halsey incorporates South Los Angeles in everything she creates. Her portrait of the familiar scene reflects her love and respect for the traditions of her community.
Ndjeka Akunyili Crosby’s I Still Face You, 2015 portrays a meeting in what looks to be the sitting room at a home. The piece is created with oil and acrylic paints, charcoal, and photo transfers that line the walls in the room, the chairs, and the parts of the floor. All of the participants are dressed in traditional African clothing with the artist and a lighter-skinned subject, possibly her husband, sharing a moment while the others look on. It makes me think of possibly the moment when Crosby brought her significant other to meet her parents. Maybe he had to face serious questions about his intentions with Njideka before they moved forward in their relationship. (laughs).
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Junior’s Research, 2018 is a pastel and graphite-based work that shows a man with his back to the viewer standing in a pond filled with yellow and green lily pads. He is seen looking out into a lush green atmosphere, with clouds and a mountain range as he contemplates his surroundings, possibly his next moves in life. What immediately stands out is the grooves in his shirt and shorts indicating that it could be windy, which the artist captures peacefully.
The final work in the exhibition – or first depending on where you started – is A portrait of the artist as a shadow of his former self, 1980 by Kerry James Marshall. It shows a pitch-black character against a dark charcoal grayish background with a sneaky snide look as if he’s withholding a secret that only he knows. His hat and overcoat are the defining features aside from Marshall’s use of the color white to highlight the eyes, shirt, and large grin with the gap-tooth smile of the figure. I first saw this work in Marshall’s groundbreaking exhibition “Mastery” at the now-closed Met Breuer in New York City and also at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and it has always been a favorite of fans because of its strength in simplicity. If I ever get the chance, I’ll be sure to reference this work to see if what may have been hidden was ever revealed.
After wandering for what seemed like hours through the Black American Portraits exhibition, I crossed over (actually I had to walk out and go around) to the gallery that housed The Obama Portraits, and my goodness this presentation was very extremely underwhelming. I had the opportunity to view the paintings on a trip to the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. when they were initially debuted to the public. There is truly no comparison of the venue when viewing the works amongst the portraits of other leaders and revered people in history. I don’t know what I expected, but I surely expected more of an exhibition design to accompany this stop on the tour.
Upon entering the gallery you notice an emptiness, an open space with visitors in line – phone in hand – hoping to get the perfect selfie with the former President and First Lady’s portraits. Many of the visitors completely ignored and probably didn’t even see the work of Catherine Opie, (with works Kamala Harris, 2016 and Inauguration Portfolio, 2009), whose photographs were intended to be a precursor to the viewing of the paintings. There was also a small portrait of the former president taking the oath of office, with the first lady by his side by Karen Ballard (Untitled, 2009), but to many, it went highly unnoticed. To be honest, I missed it on the first go-round myself.
There was also a small QR code that directed viewers to a video directed by Christine Turner titled Paint & Pitchfork, 2021 on the LACMA website, highlighting the practices of the commissioned artists, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, but it didn’t do much to keep visitors in the space. The only contrast in the room was a purple accented wall that included the title and a small description – which again went disregarded. It would’ve been a major win for LACMA and its curatorial presentation of the paintings if they could’ve added works from the collection to build a narrative about inaugurations, politics, or another connection. Or maybe even extend the works from the main show into the space in a more connected approach. Opportunity missed.
The Obama Portraits appear muted, understated even, as they seem to be devoured by the white walls in the space. I’d like to think any institution would roll out the red carpet and prepare the proper accoutrement for the arrival of a Presidential portrait, but in this case, I was wrong. I understand that not everyone can’t make it to the Smithsonian to see it in its proper setting, so I’m hoping that other locations have better plans for presentation. I think placing them in a smaller space could’ve been more impactful.
Overall, I wasn’t in favor of the salon-style curation and the number of works selected for the exhibition. It was contemporary overkill and a constant fight for attention as paintings seemed to encroach on the focus that accompanies viewing an artwork. This show features an augmented reality component that extends the exhibition’s experience outside of the display, which was exciting to see as new generations can learn about black portraiture in relative technology making it a bit easier for outreach.
I desired more context on the works in this presentation – facts that could bring the viewer in with hopes of an educational “why” – instead of just faces in abundance. I saw a young kid continually ask his mother who each person was in almost every work during their visit. It highlighted the need for further explanation to guests with whom these faces and art practices are new and unfamiliar.
I ended up seeing the exhibition about nine times and each time it just felt a little different. There was a revived interest in familiar works and minor discoveries in a few overlooked pieces but overall it provided the same incomplete feeling. It was a last-place finish, completely overshadowed by the presentation and context provided in neighboring exhibitions in the Pavilion. The show just felt rushed and unfulfilled.
I found out around visiting for the fourth time, that many of the works on view came from LACMA’s recent acquisitions of works by African-Americans, and it kind of soured me a bit more on the exhibition. Was it a survey of Black American Portraiture or a display of the loot? Man, was I fooled. I did see a huge potential to go deeper and truly provide a research-rich display of the history of black portraiture and the gaze of the black photographer. Merging it with the advancements of the practice in contemporary culture without saturating the content to appease market speculation. Aren’t museums places of culture and education? Or have we redesigned them into art mini-malls that cater to a “buying” audience with a don’t touch policy?