Why Is Black Portraiture So Popular Today?

This portrait by Barkley L. Hendricks, "Tequila", features a teen-age girl.  Representation really matters. To be able to see representation of one’s self in an art museum is empowering. Looking at one’s self in various media allows one to imagine worlds that could not have otherwise been imagined without such representation. And it also allows others to see characteristic potential through depiction. When people of different ethnicities and races view art that depicts the humanity of black people, they may come to have some compassion and understanding of the black experience. The youth today are determined to make representation a thing of the future by including people of varied races, abilities, sexual orientations, and religions in the stories we tell. 

While black people have been active in the art world, making their own waves and reaping the benefits, the options of who we could be and what we could look like were limited. Artists have made space for black women and men to not only create work but to be the subjects of artworks and place the black image in the western art historical canon in dominant roles they hadn’t been in before. This is significant because, whereas in the past black people were depicted as slave or servant, the black image has taken on a central role in art, demanding respect and dignity by being characterized as regal and beautiful. 

This new generation of artists is calling for more inclusive representation in their art. They are making the claims that successful and intelligent black people are not only light skin; beautiful black people aren’t only thin; and professional black hair doesn’t always have to be straight. Yes, representation matters and we’re experiencing a saturation of art that deals with that, but why are we not seeing more diversity in how we represent these varied images? Many emerging artists are using the same tropes in order to deliver the message that representation matters. 

The portraiture work that contemporary artists are creating are made to deal with the lack of representation of the black image in major art institutions’ collections. The goal is to create masterful portraits, portraits good enough to be included in the best collections around the world. And black artists have been doing just that. Kehinde Wiley, the chief portraitist of our time, really set the tone for acceptance when he started working on his portraits of black men posing like the subjects in historical Renaissance paintings. Because of his magnanimous success other artists have followed his lead in order to achieve the goal – placing black images in historically white institutions. And it’s worked. While portraits are really doing well right now in terms of the market, is commerce killing creativity? 

Morpheus by Kehinde Wiley

Kerry James Marshall and Njideka Akunyili Crosby who both create narrative paintings are also contributing to the representation of black people in the larger art world and having great success. They use representational figures, but there is also a narrative that accompanies these figures. There’s more going on than just the return of the gaze. In their works black bodies are active. They are in love, at work, and playing. They provide a story that the viewer can engage in whether it is by looking at symbolism or the actions of the narrative’s characters. Viewers can imagine the world of the subjects. They can get lost in worlds in which they are familiar, like a beauty parlor or living room. But they get to see these familiar spaces from the artists’ perspective. Or they can enter into a world where they have never been. Whatever the viewer does with the narrative painting, they can imagine. Narrative paintings allow the viewer to feel a sense of compassion, respect, or understanding for the characters in the narrative.

"Keeping the Culture" by Kerry James Marshall
(available at www.buyblackart.com)

A very popular example of narrative paintings would be the jazz scene paintings. There was a time there was a thriving jazz scene. But people don’t attend jazz clubs like they used to. Wouldn’t the narrative of this time be better represented if we were looking at paintings of outdoor jazz festivals that so many cities host? What are we leaving behind as a reminder of our contemporary time? Nina Simone’s quote, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times” is well-known and recited. But are artists really thinking about our times and reflecting that in the work? Why aren’t artists making art that is representative of the lifestyles we live? And why are we longing for times that weren’t any better than today? Shouldn’t we be creating new narratives?

Alfred Conteh is a great painter. His portraits are masterful. The detail when viewing them up close is amazing. And the concept behind the Two Front series is relevant. He’s having great success painting portraits. But he has done other things as excellently. His sculpture is deceptively beautiful. And his narrative paintings give you an insider’s look into a black experience not many people buying his art would understand. Conteh’s problem is not a lack of creativity. There is such demand for his portraits, and rightfully so, but his narrative paintings are quite beautiful, as well. They tell stories of contemporary times. And when we look back at this moment in time, we have the narratives he created to represent what many of us are experiencing. 

But the market is demanding portraits as a result of a trickle-down effect. Because two of the most successful artists today are creating portraits – Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald– so many other emerging artists feel they need to follow in their footsteps. The difference between Wiley, Sherald, and a lot of other artists is they are not simply painting portraits. They are expressing narratives by the choices made of the elements included in their portrait paintings. 

So, while Kehinde Wiley is a portrait artist, by placing his subjects in poses of people with power, he’s creating a narrative about them. Amy Sherald’s portraits symbolize the unacknowledged history and make-up of black people. While narratives can’t be the only solution to creating a more understanding world, they are a start. Narratives allow those of us who live the realities in the art to feel appreciated and seen. And for those of us foreign to the lifeworld of the narratives depicted in art, we gain some understanding. Portraits are a start to a communal understanding of a people, but it shouldn’t be the end.

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Jordan Casteel, a Studio in Harlem residency alum, while relatively new to the art scene received her first solo exhibition this year. Her most celebrated works have been portraits. The demand for such works is great, as evidence by Jordan Casteel’s solo exhibition Returning the Gaze at Denver Art Museum. Casteel’s practice is very similar to Wiley’s, as some of her subjects are chosen from off of the street. By doing this, both Wiley and Casteel are inserting not only highly regaled black men and women but ordinary black men and women into the western art historical canon. And by seeing themselves in spaces like art galleries and museums, they can see themselves from different perspectives and as beautiful. But Casteel typically gives us context based in relationships between subjects in her paintings and the lifestyle of the subjects in her work.

What are we supposed to know by looking at a portrait? Relying on a portrait to evoke feelings in the viewer based on just the image of a person is a bit presumptuous. Of course, in all artworks the viewer projects their own experiences on the subjects in a given artwork. When you don’t personally relate to the subject in the artwork, it might just be a pretty painting, and highlighting the beauty of black men and women in an artwork is enough for a portrait to do. But making assumptions on the person in a portrait, as if creating a narrative surrounding their personhood without any context in the artwork to determine what you are supposed to know about the subject is a bit inconsiderate.

Representation without context is not telling us enough about who we are. Black people may be present in the western art historical canon now. But are the stories of these regular people being expressed through the work? When we look back, will we know their stories? Or will they just be pretty pictures? Pretty pictures aren’t enough to represent the fullness and complexity of a people. Of course, not all black artists today are creating portraits. There is still a lot of conceptual work being done by black artists, especially at the higher rungs of the art establishment. But for those who are painters, narrative paintings are also an option. What will we think of this generation besides the fact that we were present? What are we adding to tell a robust story of our time? What will we be known for? What are artists contributing to American culture? And how can paintings depict these things?

Black people have so many stories to tell. And every medium we can think of is at our access. Why should artists settle on objectifying themselves for the art market? Painting the people without telling their stories is a bit exploitative. Yes, the art market might be interested in this work, but it can also only respond to what is available to it. 


Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s TheEditorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While  receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.



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