Kerry James Marshall: Challenging Racism in Art History

"I started making pin-up images it was a response to the absence in a book like Taschen’s, or the early history of Playboy magazines, or Miss America or Miss Universe pageants.
All those pageants, at one time, didn’t put a black female body in the competition for who is the most beautiful or who is the most desirable.”
Women of Color as subjects versus servants:  
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Western artists often cast a black figure as one of the magi when painting the stock scene of the Adoration of the Kings (Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance altarpiece on this theme in the National Gallery in London is a good example).


 Other than that, though, black people usually appear in Western art as peripheral servants: the Moorish page to the left of Van Dyck’s 1634 portrait of Princess Henrietta of Lorraine or the woman bearing flowers in the background of Manet’s famous nude Olympia (1863) are both typical of this trend.


“Those are the two primary forms of representation,” says Marshall, “although you might also see images of black people in the process of being conquered.”

Absence of art featuring Black Artists or Women of Color as subjects In Mesuems: 
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Kerry James Marshall discusses his relationship to museums during the installation of the exhibition "Black Romantic" at Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, which features five paintings from the artists "Vignettes" (2003-07) series.

Pink Towel - (All rights reserved/Courtesy David Zwirner, London)
For centuries black people appeared in art as slaves or exotic novelties – and the painter Kerry James Marshall wants to challenge these racist ideas. He talks to Alastair Sooke.

“When I go to the movies, I’m expected to identify with all of the characters, and most of them are white,” says the African-American artist Kerry James Marshall, sitting on the top floor of David Zwirner’s immaculate gallery in a Mayfair townhouse in London, where his new exhibition of paintings Look See has just opened. “But when you put a black character in there, somehow the white audience isn’t expected to identify with them. That’s a problem.”


He smiles, before continuing: “If you walk into any magazine store, I guarantee that nine out of 10 covers will feature white, blonde, blue-eyed, slim women because that’s still the ideal of beauty. When a black or Asian figure shows up in a fashion magazine, she’s the exception, not the rule. So what does that mean when we talk about equality? To me, equality means that I would be as likely to see black figures as anybody else.”


Now 59, Marshall may have little sway in the world of moviemaking or the fashion industry, but he is doing his damnedest to ensure equality for black people in contemporary art. It is more than three decades since he painted Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self (1980), a caustic, subversive work in which the whites of a schematic black man’s eyes, as well as his bright teeth and shirt, float against a dark background. “That grin referred to a joke people used to tell about black people,” he says. “That they are so dark you couldn’t see them at night unless they were smiling.”

Since then, he has earned acclaim for placing black figures centre-stage within his complex, beautiful paintings – and his new exhibition continues this campaign. From the victorious beauty queen and the happy couple enjoying cocktails in a nightclub, to the models in an artist’s studio and the woman holding up a pink towel against her chest, every figure in the show is black.

Not only that, but their skin tone is strikingly uniform: ebony-dark, with an attractive, satiny sheen.


 “The blackness of my figures is supposed to be unequivocal, absolute and unmediated,” Marshall explains. “They are a response to the tendency in the culture to privilege lightness. The lighter the skin, the more acceptable you are.

The darker the skin, the more marginalised you become. I want to demonstrate that you can produce beauty in the context of a figure that has that kind of velvety blackness. It can be done.”