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  • Writer's pictureBeyond the Canvas

Kerry James Marshall IS the canon

“Who needs to NOT think of you as a Black artist to consider you a real artist?” - Kerry James Marshall

There are a handful of artists whose work I revere to the point that I don't dare write about them. Kerry James Marshall is one of them, and today I'm taking the plunge. I came across this video where he cites Langston Hughes' writings on how Black artists should not aspire to paint or write like white people, but rather should "express their individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame". It's all in there, the essence of his work.

For Alabama-born Marshall it all boils down to how well artists master their medium of choice - unburdened by the racial issue, they should just try to be the best they can. As an artists, he operates in that space where Western art has dominated for centuries, imposing aesthetic ideals that are not his own. And that's where he weaves in his unapologetically ebony-skinned subjects, which are however not to be seen as a criticism to the omission of black figure representation in the history of art. Marshall has declared he is not interested in the issue of exclusion, he wants to be part of art history and drive its expansion. So that is something else he and his art are not burdened with - he is a fundamentally free artist.

My first encounter with his work was in 2016, when this allegory of painting was on display at the Unfinished exhibition at the Met Breuer. This self-aware Black Artemisia is staring right at us, demanding we engage with the painting. What a statement this is from Marshall, what a celebration of Black identity. A Black female artist depicted with the tools of her trade in the act of painting her own portrait.

I've written enough, maybe even too much. Let's hear it from the master himself: "Blackness is non-negotiable. It’s also unequivocal — they are black — that’s the thing that I mean for people to identify immediately. They are black to demonstrate that blackness can have complexity. Depth. Richness.”

Kerry James Marshall

Untitled, 2009

© Kerry James Marshall, courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

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