BY John-Baptiste Oduor in Opinion | 18 JAN 24
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Issue 240

The Politics of Black Figurative Art Today

An analysis of the production, interpretation and critique of Black figuration

BY John-Baptiste Oduor in Opinion | 18 JAN 24

Some time ago, I found myself at a panel discussion for an exhibition of the work of a Black artist at a major London gallery. An earnestness bordering on sanctimonious pervaded the atmosphere. With the exception of an elderly man, who sat down in the front row and promptly fell asleep, the room looked rapt and engaged. ‘I just wanted to say how much your work has meant to me,’ said a voice from the audience. The ironic detachment that I usually associate with the art world was notably absent, and this comment seemed to induce unease in the artist. At one point, she interrupted the event chairs, the curators of the exhibition, and asked them why they had seen her work in particular, rather than that of many of her contemporaries and predecessors, as worthy of such a major retrospective. Their response – meandering and inconclusive – appeared, to me at least, to have irked her and, sooner than the event was scheduled to end, she declared it over, and walked off into the gallery.

Kara Walker, Book of Hours (Summer), 2021, graphite, watercolour, gouache and sumi-e ink on paper, 23 × 31 cm. Courtesy: © Kara Walker, Sikkema Jenkins & Co. and Sprüth Magers

Initially, I took the episode to be an instance of the phenomena which the art historian Sarah Lewis described in a 2021 Artnet interview as that of Black artists being ‘over-exhibited and under-theorized’. The works on display at the show – almost exclusively depictions of Black figures, including numerous self-portraits – were alluded to, both in the Q&A and in the exhibition materials, as being of political significance. Examining the artist’s practice through this particular curatorial lens, however, is symptomatic of what we might call an ‘anti-critical disposition’ – a stance that has flourished in discussions of the work of Black artists in the last decade.

The perception of a historic exclusion of Black practices from major blue-chip galleries has provoked a moral response to their inclusion – expressed often through mentions of how ‘important’ it is that a particular artist is (finally) being acknowledged. This has had the effect of hamstringing a more natural, critical engagement with images. In the work of abstract artists, it takes the form of a tendency to interpret all artworks as metaphors for some historical trauma or Black experience, rather than engagements with the formal problems specific to a medium. But in figurative art, where Black ‘bodies’ – a term which has become a replacement for the more straightforward alternative ‘people’ – are literally visible in previously predominantly white spaces, the pressure to focus on the significance of this is felt more acutely by curator, critic and viewer alike.

Kerry James Marshall, Portrait of a Curator (In Memory of Beryl Wright), 2009, acrylic on PVC. Courtesy: © Kerry James Marshall and David Zwirner, London

On the website Artfacts, which ranks artists by influence – measured in the number and significance of their exhibitions, as well as the quantity of public engagements with their work – Black figurative artists are trending healthily. Healthily, that is, in contrast to their peers working in abstraction, who deal with much wilder swings in popularity; both Frank Bowling and Sam Gilliam, to name two abstract artists currently in the top 1,000, dropped out of the top 10,000 in the 1990s as abstract painting fell from favour. But the rise of some of the most significant Black figurative artists working today – Kerry James Marshall (248), Kehinde Wiley (308) and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (314) – has been steady for the last decade. In the case of Wiley, whose work most explicitly addresses questions around representation and inclusion (such as the artist’s recent show at Musée du Quai Branly in Paris featuring the portraits of 11 African heads of state), the new wave of interest in these issues following the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 did not significantly impact the trend in growth of exhibitions and discussions of his work.

‘With their kitsch wallpaper backgrounds and bright figures, Kehinde Wiley’s works stage a performance for the viewer.’

These are blunt metrics, and categories like ‘Black Artistic Renaissance’, one of the fields through which you can search on Artfacts, unhelpfully lump together artists whose practices have very little in common. What these broad categories do succeed in doing, however, is re-creating a phenomenon which the art historian Luke Williams described to me as that of Black artists having ‘interpretation precede an engagement with their work’. This is, of course, a problem with which all art must reckon, but for Black artists it is exacerbated by the ubiquity of public discussions of race, especially within liberal-minded institutions. Nevertheless, nuances exist despite the generalizations which this environment generates.

Kehinde Wiley, Portrait of Erika Gray Ferro, 2023, oil on linen, 122 × 91 cm. Courtesy: © Kehinde Wiley and Sean Kelly, New York

Looked at as a whole, the subfield of ‘Black Artistic Renaissance’ is more heavily represented by conceptual, video and abstract artists – none of the artists in the top 10, which includes the likes of Zanele Muholi, Glenn Ligon and Isaac Julien, are figurative painters. This is understandable given the fierce polemics of the 1980s and ’90s, which saw some, such as critic Douglas Crimp, proclaim the death of painting, with others, including Fred Wilson, championing institutional critique as the only avenue through which a self-aware artist could work in good conscience. Seen from this perspective, the ongoing popularity of Black figuration appears to be backward-looking.

Wiley’s work arguably exemplifies this trend more than that of any other artist. His realist depictions show Black figures often dressed in clothing such as football shirts, Timberland boots and Louis Vuitton sweatshirts, and assuming poses taken from Old Master paintings. The artworks’ imposing scale – his canvases sometimes stand more than 2.5 metres tall – forces a confrontational engagement with the audience: it is impossible for viewers to avoid thinking about their own relationship to the life-size characters portrayed. With their kitsch wallpaper backgrounds and bright figures, Wiley’s works almost stage a performance for the viewer. Another recurring theme in Wiley’s paintings is the inclusion of horses, a motif which has often symbolized power, wealth and prestige throughout Western art history – his 2005 painting Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps was a response to works by Charles Le Brun, Peter Paul Rubens and Diego Velázquez. Yet, rapt contemplation – fixated on intricacies of pattern, shape and colour – is hard to sustain when looking at these images, which insist, first and foremost, on being read as public interventions. They appear to be a direct, and generally quite literal, response to demands for inclusion of Black people within the artistic canon. Lost here is the modernist concern with how to produce art that negates viewers’ attempts to subsume what is in front of them into something that simply panders to their expectations.

Kerry James Marshall, A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, 1980, egg tempera on paper, 20 × 17 cm. Courtesy: © Kerry James Marshall and David Zwirner, London

Yiadom-Boakye’s portraiture, on the other hand, takes issue with the style of representation that Wiley embraces by rejecting the notion that situating a figure within a historical or social space is necessary for an image to be compelling. Instead, her backgrounds, often abstract and impasto-laden, force the viewer to treat colour, and the mood it is capable of conjuring, as the only context necessary for the appreciation of her deeply psychological paintings. The Stygian Silk (2019), for instance, explores the tonal ranges going up to, but not including, pitch black. Its central figure sits cross-legged, her face an umber hue, radiating the confidence typical of the imagined characters that feature in Yiadom-Boakye’s work. Next, the picture draws our attention to the circle of dogs surrounding her and, from there, to pools of turquoise, dark navy, purple and a flash of mauve from the animals’ panting mouths. Because the artist typically shuns social markers of any kind, the relationship between the figures in her paintings is never symbolic. For example, the dogs in The Stygian Silk do not, to my mind, suggest any affinity between human and animal other than the fact that both are capable of being inscrutable, purely visual objects. The primary function of the dogs seems to be to provide spaces in which increasingly intricate tonal differentiations can be made. In a 2015 interview with The Guardian, critic Rachel Cooke notes that Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings are merely ‘suggestions of people’. Accordingly, her practice is concerned with depicting indeterminate figures: this is why she eschews historical locations or anything identifiable in her work. Presumably, part of the context for her aversion to the kind of social realism prevalent in the first half of the 20th century is that such depictions would be harder to reconcile with her broader commitment to the psychological and social opacity of her characters. In Yiadom-Boakye’s work, figurative painting is able to inspire conviction by depriving the viewer of the material required to pin down and understand their meaning.   

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Black Allegiance to the Cunning, 2018, oil on linen, 201 × 150 × 4 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Corvi-Mora, London and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

At first glance, Marshall’s canvases, which feature pitch-black figures, would seem to fall into exactly the kind of trap which Yiadom-Boakye has sought painstakingly to avoid. Marshall’s explicit aim to redress an art-historical failure to represent Black people would appear to place him much closer to Wiley in ambition, if not in style. However, Marshall’s career-long intention has been to address the formal problem of whether the visual language of ‘traditional’ art could be reconstructed primarily through the depiction of Black figures. ‘I tried to figure out how much of a suggestion of volume you could get out of a thing that was essentially flat without any kind of modelling […] using a variety of textured marks,’ Marshall said in a 2017 interview in Artillery. This led to a period of figurative experimentation that began with A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self (1980), which appears to be a racist caricature of a Black person but is, in fact, an exercise in demarcating shape, space and depth without the use of tone. For instance, the sharp, geometric lines of the subject’s shirt, which run parallel to the edges of the canvas, evoke the work of colour field painter Kenneth Noland. From this early piece, Marshall has gone on to create a visual language in which complex composition and psychology can be conveyed through an almost-exclusively black palette. The credo underlying his work seems to be that the most interesting way of thinking about the depiction of Black figures is as a formal problem.

‘Kerry James Marshall and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye have trained their audiences to see their art as an exercise in formal experimentation.’

The issues facing Black figurative artists are not in any substantive sense different from those confronting all artists. The tendency towards what the critic Michael Fried described as ‘theatricality’ in his book Absorption and Theatricality (1988) is, however, stronger in the work of Black artists because, in order to provoke the same level of appreciation as other practitioners, it must circumvent viewers’ interpretative impulses – racist ideas about Black people as well as notions of racial authenticity, both of which have produced their own sets of recognizable imagery. Marshall and Yiadom-Boakye have found ingenious ways of addressing this dilemma by training their audiences to see their art as an exercise in formal experimentation. But the barriers to encouraging engagement with art on this plane are, perhaps, harder to circumvent in the current climate. The data from Artfacts shows that there has been a steady rise in popularity of the work of Black figurative artists for a generation, preceding the public reckoning with race driven by the political campaigns of the last decade. However, whilst the focus on injustice has opened the door to greater inclusion for Black artists – although not, it should be noted, at a pace which significantly bucks the trend of the last 25 years – it has also made the conditions in which these artists must work somewhat murkier. Navigating these obstacles requires creating works that circumvent the anti-critical tendency to view art as a response to pressing social and political issues.

Kara Walker, Book of Hours (Summer), 2021, graphite, watercolour, gouache, and sumi-e ink on paper, 23 × 31 cm. Courtesy: © Kara Walker, Sikkema Jenkins & Co. and Sprüth Magers

In a talk accompanying his 2017 retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Marshall described how, growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, his exposure to the moving image was confined to the few hours per day during which television shows were broadcast or films screened. In contrast to the endlessly scrolling footage on smartphones and other electronic devices today, this created a sharp distinction between art and reality that encouraged a detached, experimental interest in image-making. ‘I never really thought that art was a tool for self-expression,’ explained Marshall. ‘I saw what it meant to make art as an intellectual activity.’

In the decade since the launch of the Black Lives Matter movement, the world has become saturated with images purporting to provide authentic access to Black life – from protest documentation to representations of quotidian Black life. Arguably, however, this recent proliferation has reduced the number of options available to artists wishing to portray Black figures innovatively, without conforming to pre-established narratives about race. Perhaps the tendency to attach a moral and political value to Black figurative art stems from the fact that a detached relationship to images has become harder to inspire.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 240 with the headline ‘Go Figure’

Main image: Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Black Allegiance to the Cunning, 2018, oil on linen, 201 × 150 × 4 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Corvi-Mora, London and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

John-Baptiste Oduor is associate editor of Jacobin. He writes about art, film and politics.