American painter and professor Kerry James Marshall challenges biases within the art world that have historically marginalized coloured artists. Through his powerful and thought-provoking portrait paintings that feature Black artists, Marshall interrogates the lack of representation of Black figures in art institutions, reflecting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Reduced Inequalities. 

Photograph of Kerry James Marshall. Image courtesy of Britannica.

From his early career days to his recent masterpieces, Marshall's 40-year oeuvre is characterized by a profound commitment to depicting Black lived experiences with honesty, complexity and dignity. This journey began with a personal revelation when, as a child, he wandered through museums and realized the glaring absence of Black representation in the annals of art history. Determined to rectify this imbalance, Marshall made it his mission to create artworks that would demand recognition and validation for Black artists in art institutions.

One such seminal work is his 1980 piece, A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self. The piece is a haunting self-portrait, a fitting assertion of himself as a Black artist in art institutions, as the piece was displayed at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago. In this painting, Marshall has portrayed himself as a ghoulishly smiling Black man with a missing tooth, challenging conventional notions of beauty and representation. From that point on, Marshall's canvases became populated exclusively by Black figures, a deliberate assertion of their presence in the artistic landscape.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self by Kerry James Marshall. Image courtesy of Artsy.

Another of such pieces is an untitled piece (painter), where the allegory of the act of painting is depicted as a Black artist. Painting sits with a regal posture and presentation, their gaze directly meets the audience’s, asserting their presence. 

A literalization of blackness can be witnessed in his paintings. He does this by portraying his painted subjects as unequivocally black, rather than using the common shades or hues of brown. This is deliberately done to challenge the pervasive whiteness that has dominated the art world for centuries. By reclaiming blackness as a central motif in his paintings, Marshall disrupts conventional narratives and asserts the validity and richness of Black artist’s experiences.

Untitled (Painter) artwork by Kerry James Marshall. Image courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago

In addition to his visual language, Marshall's choice of materials and techniques also contributes to his critique of artistic inequalities. They are made on unstretched canvas and mounted with grommets on walls to challenge traditional notions of a painting's presentation and scale. This is another way Marshall asserts the power and presence of Black artists by ensuring that the painting dominates the space viewers are in physically.

Marshall's commitment to increasing the visibility of Black artists extends beyond the realm of aesthetics; it is a deeply political and social endeavour. Through his artworks, he confronts systemic injustices and demands a reevaluation of structures within the art world that perpetuate inequality within them and society at large. By amplifying the presence and experiences of black individuals, Marshall's art becomes a catalyst for change, inspiring viewers to question their biases and assumptions about Black artists.

You've successfully subscribed to Arts Help
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Great! You've successfully signed up.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.