Essays

Resituating Kerry James Marshall in a Black Radical Tradition

Curators have extensively referenced the white, male, Western canon of painting, but mostly ignore the ways in which Marshall’s work fits into and extends black visual culture.

Kerry James Marshall, “Past Times” (1997), acrylic and collage on canvas, 9 ft. 6 in. × 13 ft. (photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago)

Kerry James Marshall’s work arises from a black radical tradition that encompasses pan-African, Caribbean, and Black Atlantic writing, philosophy, and art. Yet the current retrospective exhibition Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, jointly mounted by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, leaves a vast silence around the black and African diasporic dimensions of his work. Ensconced within a project of demonstrating his relation to the Western canon (including comparisons to Dürer, Degas, Holbein, Chardin, Cézanne, Velasquez, Courbet, Eakins, Watteau, etc.), these institutions remain locked into a white historical narrative in which Marshall’s work inevitably appears as “belated.”

Curator Helen Molesworth observes how Marshall’s figurative painting was out of step with the move towards abstract art and nonrepresentational work engaged in institutional critique, such as by artists Michael Asher, Daniel Buren, and Hans Haacke, or later Mark Dion and Fred Wilson, making Marshall’s work seem like naïve realism. She writes in the exhibition catalogue, “I fear I have a lingering ambivalence or anxiety that assumes belatedness is a charge rather than a virtue.” In making up for this anxiety and trying to position Marshall as both a master Western painter and a master of institutional critique, the curatorial essays extensively reference the white, male, Western canon of painting, but mostly ignore the ways in which Marshall’s work fits into and extends black visual culture, black feminist art, and what he calls “black aesthetics.”

In his discussion of Mickalene Thomas’s work (reprinted in a selection of his essays in the catalogue), Marshall writes that the black aesthetic “is an atmosphere, a tone, a ‘vibe.’ ‘Black aesthetics’ embody the ‘twoness’ W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about in The Souls of Black Folk: it is glamorous and impoverished, structured and improvisational, naïve and sophisticated, brash and abject. Its first principle is a desire for self-representation.” Marshall therefore finds it curious that in discussions of Thomas’s work amongst curators, “no black antecedents seem to arise as potential influences on the development of her style.” We could say the same of this exhibition’s catalogue, apart from Marshall’s own writing. Although the curators briefly acknowledge references in Marshall’s paintings to pan-Africanism, Civil Rights, Black Panthers, and radical black writers like Ralph Ellison, Aimé Césaire, and Angela Davis, the limitations of the Western (and American) curatorial framework overlook the key symbolism of Haitian Vodou and the crucial influence of the spirits, or “mystères” in Haitian Creole, in his work.

In an essay Marshall wrote for the Krannert Art Museum in 2004, “Bill Traylor, William Edmondson and the Modernist Impulse,” also reprinted here, he excoriates white art critics and museums for embracing and celebrating black folk artists while ignoring or offering only lukewarm approval for academically trained black artists including Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff, Elizabeth Catlett, and Lois Mailou Jones, whom he refers to as “masters all in the African American canon.” In another 2010 essay on Chris Ofili, Marshall complains of not seeing anywhere in contemporary museums an Ofili, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, Kehinde Wiley, or Mickalene Thomas: “Ain’t these some quality artists? Somebody tell me what’s up with that shit.” And he is right. While many of these artists now have far more museum presence, the critical framing of their work has yet to challenge canonical assumptions.

Yet the curators fail to take his cue and consistently compare his work to the Western (white, male) canon. An African diasporic reading of Marshall’s work, in contrast, can help interpret its rich tapestry of visual references, which lead far beyond Western art history. Art historian Krista Thompson, in her study Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice, borrowing from Ellison’s term “un-visibility” in Invisible Man, calls on us “to put pressure on the forces, institutions, and disciplinary structures that might erase, discount, and render certain African diasporic practices un-visible.” Haitian anthropologist Gina A. Ulysse likewise argues that representations of Vodou in white Western contexts have an especially long troubled history of distortion and suppression. It is therefore incumbent upon us to place Marshall’s work within these black aesthetic traditions, as well as in relation to the folk traditions and “outsider art,” including the visual arts of Vodou.

Kerry James Marshall, “When Frustration Threatens Desire” (1990), acrylic and collage on canvas, 80 × 72 in. (image courtesy Collection of April Sheldon and John Casado)

Marshall is explicit about his influences. In his painting “When Frustration Threatens Desire” (1990), he describes it as combining “symbolic representations of the seven African powers from the Yoruba pantheon … and some ve-ve from Haitian Voodun,” mixed with traditions of Western pictorial representation:

What also started to crystallize in that painting was a way to bring together not only Western traditions of pictorial representation, but folk traditions of painting that have an equally valid authority. I don’t see much difference between using Giotto or Bill Trayler as a point of reference. To me they’re the same.

Here we find the veve, a Vodou symbol drawn in powdery white designs that summon lwa, or spirits. There is one for Ogou Feray, the lwa of blacksmiths, fire, and war, and another heart-shaped veve for Erzulie Freda, the lwa of love, beauty, and femininity. We see the black cat symbol of European witchcraft, but also the snake representing the lwa Dambala, the primordial creator of all life, sometimes called the “Great Master.” Marshall’s Vodou imagery is very precise and depicts specific practices, usually known only to initiates. The Met labels name a few of these lwa in passing, and mention the use of veve, yet offer no interpretation of what they represent, where they come from, and what they mean in the context of a syncretic tradition of visual representation that is both Western and Afro-Caribbean.

Kerry James Marshall, “Slow Dance” (1992–93), acrylic and collage on canvas (courtesy the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago Purchase, Smart Family Foundation Fund for Contemporary Art, and Paul and Miriam Kirkley Fund for Acquisitions)

The religious symbols of Haitian Vodou appear prominently throughout Marshall’s work, but especially in the paintings from 1989–93 that include the white veves drawings, spiritual candles in sequined bottles, numerology drawn from the Kabbalah, and the combination of crosses and phallic sexuality associated with the Gede spirit Baron Samedi. Ezili Freda, a spirit also associated with art, romance, jealousy, passion, and sex, manifests in “Slow Dance” (1992–93). On the table is the veve for Papa Legba, guardian of the crossroads and intermediary between the material and the spiritual world, between God and humanity. Unequipped to see these aspects of black aesthetics as important to art history, the institutional apparatus of labels, catalogues, and curatorial essays generally passes over them quickly, erasing their significance for Marshall’s positioning as an artist. Adding these readings back in can transform how we see his paintings.

Kerry James Marshall, “Could This Be Love” (1992), acrylic and collage on canvas, 8 ft. 7 in. × 9 ft. 6 in. (private collection, courtesy Segalot, New York)

In “Could This be Love?” (1991), veve for Ezili plays an especially prominent role, accompanied by ritual candles, the number 7, which stands for love, the words “La Venus Negra,” and the song lyrics “Yes I’ve got two lovers and I love them both.” The painting here crucially illustrates the practice among devotees to enter a “spiritual marriage” with the lwa, carrying out special ritual practices on a particular day of each week, which involve preparing a bedroom, clothing, flowers, perfume, and candles. These are more than “African American interiors,” as the catalogue entry tells us. Is the artist indicating his own spiritual marriage with Ezili Freda?

Then there are Marshall’s portraits with golden halo effects, including his puzzling “Self Portrait of the Artist as a Super Model” (1994). Do they reference the popular chromolithographs of Ezili Freda as the Mater Dolorosa with her wounded heart? Or Ezili Danto, fierce mother and protector of children, one of the most famous portraits of black female beauty to circulate across the Black Atlantic world? If Marshall’s golden halos and patterned backgrounds echo Western art traditions, they do so refracted through the folk traditions of the Afro-Atlantic world, where their meanings are doubled: as much Vodou as Christian.

Kerry James Marshall, “Self-Portrait of the Artist as a Super Model” (1994), acrylic and collage on board, 25 × 25 in. (collection of Craig Lathrop and Jennifer Roblin, image courtesy Met Breuer and the artist)

In “Voyager” (1992), there is a prominent veve for Papa Legba, as well as one above it for Maman Brigitte, lwa of death and fertility, and protector of cemeteries, whose colors are black, purple, and white. The curved boat with the small triangular sail is the symbol for the spirit Agwe, whose colors are white and blue, and whose ceremonies involve floating offerings into the water. Agwe is not only a protector of fishermen in the Caribbean, but also represents a memory of the many African ancestors lost on the Middle Passage who are said to have passe anba dlo, or passed under the water to return to Guinée.

Within this rich cultural context, Marshall’s work combines both mastery and mystery, yet the curators largely give us a narrative of mastery framed by Western art history and limited by an American national focus. Curator Ian Alteveer situates Marshall’s work biographically in relation to Los Angeles, where he moved as a child, and Chicago, where he lived as an adult. Titling his essay “A Different Light: Kerry James Marshall’s Western Exposure,” Alteveer seems to be commenting on both the bright sunlight of California and Marshall’s exposure to Western academic painting. Curator Dieter Roelstraete reads the work as “Realist” and mainly concerned with figuration, making the invisible visible, and a “predeliction for literalism and a resistance to metaphor” — completely missing the nonliteral, metaphorical, and spiritual aspects of the work. Roelstraete positions this realism as a difficult move in the midst of poststructuralism and abstract expressionism, once again reading the work in contrastive comparison to white canonical masters like Kline, de Kooning, Motherwell, and Pollock.

In the only curatorial essay by a woman of color, Lanka Tattersall comes closest to black aesthetics with her essay “Black Lives, Matter.” Yet like the others, her discussion of making blackness visible avoids situating Marshall’s work in relation to the wider cultural production of Caribbean, Black Atlantic, and African contemporary art. All of the curatorial essays and catalogue entries ignore Marshall’s self-positioning in relation to the tensions between pan-African folk art and Western modernism, a central theme in his work, and between the Western canon and black aesthetics. It is as if they still want to anoint him as a legitimate painter by refusing such “outdated” identity politics, purifying his intentions as painterly.

Kerry James Marshall, “School of Beauty, School of Culture” (2012), acrylic and glitter on canvas 8 ft. 11 7/8 in. × 13 ft. 1 7/8 in. (photo by Sean Pathasema)

Looking again at Marshall’s paintings, we might interrogate not just their “jet black, ebony black, charcoal black, obsidian black, velvety black, inky black,” as Molesworth describes, but also the ways in which they shine, a key aspect that Krista Thompson has identified in black popular photography and recent portrait painting. “School of Beauty, School of Culture” contains not only numerous pinned-up portrait photos, but also a camera flash lighting up the central mirror reflection, as if the artist were taking a photo of the scene. Thompson highlights how artists such a Kehinde Wiley and Ebony G. Patterson use these popular photographic practices in works such as Wiley’s “Three Boys” (2013), or Patterson’s 2013 project “Illuminated Presence” with urban youth in Chicago. When Marshall compares Mickalene Thomas’s “sparkle factor” to that of Haitian Vodou priest and flag maker Silva Joseph he says, “I have to say no one does sparkle better than the Haitians.” With his gold glitter and frequent depictions of lanterns, candles, studio lights, and light rays, he underlines his relation to a black aesthetic sensibility and visual economy of light that extends transversally across the Caribbean and African diaspora into African America, from the signed Lauryn Hill poster above the central mirror, to the Chris Ofili exhibition poster from Tate Britain, to the advertisement for Dark & Lovely “Ultra Glow” make-up.

As Ulysse has noted, the violence of refusing to allow blackness to be self-referential reiterates the white supremacy of Western art because it leaves only the aspiration to be included in white institutions. Let’s therefore contextualize this black artist’s work not just in relation to white male artists, as the curators do, but also in relation to the treatment of black female bodies, hair styles, and ideas of beauty by artists like Kara Walker, Mickalene Thomas, Wangechi Mutu, and María Magdalena Campos-Pons. The full-bottomed, shining female figures in “Black Star 2” and “School of Beauty, School of Culture,” produce a black cultural landscape that moves across the Atlantic world (referring to Marcus Garvey and the United Negro Improvement Association’s Black Star Line, which aimed to build connections across the Black Atlantic and Caribbean world) and simultaneously dismisses the constricted white American version of female beauty. Thus Marshall’s work speaks as much of exposure to pan-African cultural influences — and glowing light — as it does of any “Western exposure.”

Lets’s compare his style to Romare Bearden, quilt-maker Plummer Pettway, and “master” Haitian flag maker Myrlande Constant. Let’s compare his portraits to those by Kehinde Wiley, Ebony G. Patterson, Chris Ofili, and Ghanaian photographer Ben Bond. Let’s adjust our white gaze and Western art histories to make visible the double consciousness of a black gaze and black aesthetic traditions inside and outside the museum, as well as within and beyond the material. Only then will we begin to school ourselves in black beauty and black culture.

Kerry James Marshall: Mastry continues at the Met Breuer (945 Madison Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 29. 

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