• Beyond the Canvas

Expanding the Canon: the Portraiture of Barkley L. Hendricks

Barkley L. Hendricks mostly painted portraits, a genre that flourished during the Renaissance becoming the symbol of the sitter's prestige, wealth and power. The representation of power was however never central to Hendricks' work and he also vehemently rejected the label of political artist: "Anything a black person does in terms of the figure is put into a political category. My paintings were about people that were part of my life.”


His iconic masterpiece Lawdy Mama intrigues me for its sumptuous visual celebration of the ordinary. Hendricks painted his cousin Kathy in her everyday clothes as she engagingly looks straight back at the viewer. Her afro hairdo frames her features like a giant halo, its round shape echoed by the curved top of the canvas like in the lunette of a Byzantine religious icon. By setting the woman's figure against a gold leaf background, Hendrick juxtaposes the mundane and the sacred. There is a sublime timelessness to this painting, a universality that blends the classical with the contemporary.


If we really wanted to look for a political gesture, then perhaps this lies in the 'elevation' of the ordinary people like Kathy, whom Hendricks depicted like deities. And because he only ever painted portraits of the people around him, by giving black people a prominence on canvas they had not known before, he also succeeded in finding them a place in the art historical canon.


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Barkley L. Hendricks (1945-2017)

Lawdy Mama, 1969

Studio Museum in Harlem, New York

© Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks

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