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How contemporary African-American artists use portraiture to portray, celebrate the black experience

a group of children in front of a large portrait of a black woman lounging on a couch
Courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts
Children at the DIA surround Mickalene Thomas's portrait of her mother. The painting is titled "Something You Can Feel."

When you walk into the African American art wing of the Detroit Institute of Arts, you see a large portrait of a woman on a couch. The portrait is covered in rhinestones, and the glittering woman has a regal air.

The painting, titled "Something You Can Feel," is by artist Mickalene Thomas. The woman is her mother, who was a runway model in the 1970’s. The portrait is filled with color and joy. Its celebration of black womanhood is an example of how African-American artists have reshaped the portrayal of black bodies in fine art. 

Historically, black people in America did not have the means to tell their own stories through portraiture. If black people were depicted in Western art, it was often as a caricature or in another derogatory way. But the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s set off a cultural shift, and African-American artists started to use portraiture to write their own narratives about black life. 

Valerie Mercer is a curator and department head for African American art at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

“The intellectual foundation that supported the Harlem Renaissance, you had people like Alain Locke and W.E.B Du Bois and other black intellectuals encouraging artists to basically define the image of their people” said Valerie Mercer, a curator and department head for African American art at the Detroit Institute of Arts. 

Since the Harlem Renaissance, black representation in art has grown tremendously, and the art world has begun to accept black artists. However, they are still underrepresented in art museums, which makes them relatively unaccessible to the general public.

In recent years, Mercer said, the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama helped introduce the general public to the world of black portraiture. The portraits were painted by two prominent black artists. Kehinde Wiley painted the portrait of Barack Obama and Amy Sherald painted Michelle Obama. The works were stark contrasts to the portraits of previous presidents and first ladies.

“You also see Kehinde in there, and you see Amy [Sherald] in her portrait of Michelle because they are injecting sort of their vision into how they see these two famous people. But it’s their own distinct take on Barack Obama and Michelle Obama.”

As black artists tell the stories of black lives in the current era, Mercer said they will continue to make art that makes people uncomfortable. That includes art about the history and current reality of racism in America. Like the artists in the Harlem Renaissance, Mercer said, it’s important for modern artists to help shape the way the wider world sees black lives and issues.

“I think it’s really important for black artists to, in a sense be brave, and speak to truth about a lot of these issues, you know our history, always. Because this is the only way people learn.”

Support for arts and culture coverage is supported in part by an award from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Olive Scott. 

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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