Kerry James Marshall is En Vogue

School of Beauty, School of Culture, 2012. Photo: npr.org
School of Beauty, School of Culture, 2012. Photo: npr.org

In the last 128 years, Vogue magazine has asked 15 famous artists to paint fashion portraits for the front cover. This year the important September 2020 issue will feature Kerry James Marshall.

It’s rare for a painting to feature on the cover of Vogue and it’s not often women of colour appear on the front cover. To feature a portrait of a woman of colour on the front page of the most crucial issue of the fashion year is long overdue.

Marshall takes his rightful place in the spotlight of American contemporary artists; his work is about challenging institutions that black artists can access. He is continually asking “what will it take to featured in museums and art history books”? Using the answer to challenge the idea of what art and paintings will look like in the future—If you don’t see yourself reflected doesn’t mean your work is not relevant, make it relevant. 

Change the focus: and you change the narrative. 

The Legacy of 1955

Marshall was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955, the same year the Montgomery Bus Boycott took place. The boycott was a civil rights protest to highlight the racial discrimination of segregated seating on the cities buses. This boycott gave rise to the civil rights movement led by Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.

It would not be possible to grow up with this backdrop and not challenge or question the right to your place in history; and this has been Marshall’s mission after graduating from Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles, California in 1978.

Meeting Charles White

During his time at Otis College Marshall met Charles Wilbert White, Jr., or Charles White. White was Marshall teacher and later became his friend and mentor. White’s influence is evident, and like many great mentors, left a permanent stamp on his style.

Kerry James Marshall. Photo: artsy.net

We can see this by looking at the Voyager painted in 1992 a depiction of ‘The Wanderer’, the last documented slave ship, which set sail from the Congo and landed in Jekyll Island, Georgia, in 1858. A lone figure sits in the boat with a flower garland adorning her neck. The Wanderer sailed under the pretence of a luxury cargo and people transportation ship to conceal its purpose.

Not all paintings are political. For instance, painted in 1992, This Could Be Love, is an ordinary scene where a couple undresses for bed as the lyrics of a pop song float overhead, a loving depiction of an everyday domestic scene.

Nothing is as it seems.

In the painting titled De Style, we see life in a barber’s shop. But this isn’t just an ordinary barbershop tale. It’s two-fold; a modern painting created with a nod to the Dutch art movement De Stijl and influenced by Piet Mondrian later work Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow. The painting is atmospheric, and the references are an artistic in-joke.

De Style was updated in 2012 to School of Beauty, School of Culture. Featuring a women’s hair salon, but this time the references are updated. A Chris Ofili poster placed on the far right-hand wall. The red, black and green of the Pan-African flag features in the background, covered by the floral hearts. The painting is a socio-political comment and cultural reference to the importance of re-inforcing positive images by using the words beautiful and lovely.

In the foreground of the School of Beauty, School of Culture there’s a golden angel wing or mirror, similar to the object in Holbein’s The Ambassadors, another in-joke? Or is it a reference to ‘Souvenir III’, the series of Doig paintings which features a middle-aged lady wearing angel wings. We see her in her sitting room surrounded by clouds containing names of the famous activist in the civil rights movement. 

Wings or a mirror? Only Marshall knows. Marshall paints black figures but not just black figures purposefully black almost without definition – making a statement that is a direct challenge to the art world offered for public consumption.

Untitled (Studio), 2014. Photo: wsj.net

The backdrop is ordinary life: day to day happenings in backyards, apartments and housing projects, but we now know always with a twist. Marshall’s work is dynamic and consistently relevant, especially to those who struggle with identity.

Marshall and another contemporary artist, Jordan Casteel, have produced these beautifully different works of art in a short amount of time. The only brief was that the sitter must wear one of four designer dresses after that the artist had a free hand. Free briefs like this don’t happen at Vogue where everything regimented.

Vogue

So, what we have is an ebony model with a nonchalant expression; the self-possession of someone who has undertaken the sitting reluctantly and can’t wait to get back into comfortable clothes. The reality is sitting in a world of complete fantasy without being a comic book or dismissive of this landmark piece.

Marshall has done what he set out to do, to make his art the norm, art relevant to those who live in the now, while honouring those who have struggled to get him, and other artists like him, in the forefront of the world we live in today. Marshall’s September issue sits with me both physically and emotionally. 

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