Painting black existence in history
When filmmaker Christine Turner received a call from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) asking her if she would accept to make a film on the painters Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, she did not hesitate to say yes. She had followed the work of both artists for several years, even once going to see Sherald’s work in New York when she was nine months pregnant. And she knew the only way to present Wiley and Sherald in all their glory, she told me, was to “give them the same reverence and dignity and respect” that they give to their own. models. The final product, “Paint & Pitchfork”, explores the unfinished legacy of two black cultural icons and how, by painting themselves, their subjects and their people in the art history dossier, they attempt to rectify the social and cultural absence of, as Wiley says, in the film, “people who look like me”.
Wiley talks about his upbringing in South Central Los Angeles as a time when his artistic talent flourished and his family ties deepened, even in the face of poverty. In the documentary, photos from those years appear on screen, accompanied by the instruments that power the jazz soundtrack: drumbeats introduce the image of a young Wiley with Basquiat hair; the metal bars of a vibraphone give way to the artist as an adult photographed among a sea of smiling family members, all clad in colorful clothing and hugging him. Turner introduces the lush and intricate backgrounds of Wiley’s large-scale paintings before zooming in on the finer details: his palette, his brushstrokes, the areas of canvas he meticulously colors. Wiley explains his intense attraction to seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth-century masters such as Diego Velázquez and Francisco Goya, and to contemporary masters of more figurative art, including Charles White and Kerry James Marshall; partly because of this mix of influences, Wiley determined that his style was going to be very stately and very noir. “I would look at that,” he said, referring to great European portraits, “and get to it.”
The film then pivots to Sherald, who appears in head-to-toe denim, his collar popped and brushing his corkscrew curls. Her roots are in the American South, and she explains how the conservatism of Columbus, Georgia, her hometown, became the model of what not to emulate in her life and art. Horns chirp throughout a progression of Sherald’s childhood photos, and we see the striking color combinations of her art reflected in her clothing, as if that’s when she had began to develop his style. “I made a painting, where I found this young woman who lived off the beaten track. I realized that was the kind of person I was looking for,” says Sherald. “These are the people who need to be represented in art history and to be on the walls of institutions. These are the people who need to look at something and find their humanity inside of it, because sometimes it’s impossible to find it elsewhere.
The artists’ timelines converged when they received life-changing commissions from the National Portrait Gallery to immortalize the Obamas. Wiley’s work tends to frame black men with metaphorical flowers and other motifs. In her portrait of Barack Obama, Wiley added botanical depictions of the former president’s past, including flowers from Hawaii, Illinois and Kenya, which emerge from their leafy curtains to embrace the stoic model. Michelle Obama’s portrait of Sherald is typical of the artist’s color blocking style, which emphasizes the former First Lady’s majesty.
Both portraits commemorate their subjects, but neither do the artists aim to do for all the other black people they depict. What unites their work is that it is a direct address to a vacuum of representation – they use their medium to say ‘yes’ to black humanity when history says ‘no’. “The question I’ve often been asked is, ‘Will you ever paint anyone other than black people?’ My answer is ‘No, I won’t,’” Sherald said. “I’m here to paint my own ideal and represent it to the world, and if I can’t do that, then something is seriously wrong.” She adds, as the film’s final note, “You should look at a history book and see again if you want to ask me that question, because the problem is that you recognize an absence of yourself, but you don’t recognize the absence of yourself. ‘absence of me.’