Michelle Obama & Breonna Taylor portraitist on Black artists: "We've been here all along"

Amy Sherald appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss HBO Max's new doc "Black Art" & the importance of Black curators

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published February 25, 2021 6:55PM (EST)

Artist Amy Sherald in the HBO Max documentary "Black Art: In the Absence of Light." (Courtesy of HBO)
Artist Amy Sherald in the HBO Max documentary "Black Art: In the Absence of Light." (Courtesy of HBO)

Why does the current wave of Black American artists feel like such a new thing? Because it is. Curators are rapidly placing Black art in museums, collectors are learning and understanding what Black artists are trying to say, and fellowships for Black artists are increasing. Finally, the rest of the world is starting to recognize our talents.

The reason it has taken so long is because Black people came into this country as property­­ in 1619­­. And even though I'm sure plenty of those captured Africans were talented artists, there was no way for their work to be acknowledged, let alone highlighted or celebrated. This is the origin of our artistic legacy in America until the Civil War. That was only 156 years ago, meaning that Black people are a century behind in terms of learning, studying and participating in the culture of sharing, showcasing, and making a living through art­. Still, as resilient as we are, we somehow found a way to put the biggest exhibitions and make it into the biggest galleries, which is captured in the new HBO Max documentary, "Black Art: In The Absence of Light," directed by Sam Pollard.

The film is based on the late artist and curator David Driskell's exhibition, "Two Centuries of Black American Art," and we get to see Driskell's journey in creating the historic exhibition and the direct beneficiaries of his efforts, today's contemporary Black artists, including Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, whom I recently got a chance to talk with on an episode of "Salon Talks." 

Sherald is portraitist and realist who captures African Americans in everyday settings. She received national acclaim for her portrait of Michelle Obama, which now sits in the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, and recently for her portrait of Breonna Taylor on the cover of Vanity Fair. 

You can watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Amy Sherald here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about her take on making art history today — from her unique painting style, to collaborating with Breonna Taylor's mom for her most emotional piece, to pushing to get more Black art in museums and more Black curators in the room.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How have you been surviving COVID-19?

I spent the majority of it, in the beginning, in Atlanta with my family. I got back up here in June. I've just been here working. No new friends, no company, not doing anything, really. Walking the dog, and trying to stay safe.

You paint other people for a living and it usually means meeting them out in the world. Has it been difficult making those adjustments as an artist?

It has. I was having that conversation with my friend and painter, Jordan Casteel, because we both have health issues that we have to be really careful about. We're making jokes about painting self-portraits. For me, I actually turned to Instagram because it's really easy to find people on Instagram. Hashtags have become very useful. For my show that's opening up in LA, on March 20th, the models that I used, two of them, I found on Instagram. I have a painting that's about surfing. I went to the #blacksurfers, and it took me down the rabbit hole, and then, I found two people.

How do you choose models? What makes a person a subject, and another person maybe not so much of a subject?

It's something that is very much a spiritual process for me. I guess, since you asked me this now, and I'm thinking about it, I think the best way to describe it is that they all have that Chadwick [Boseman] energy, you know what I mean? He's a special dude. He felt like the moment, but then he felt like all the Black history, all at one time. That's just what it is. And I know it instantaneously. It has something to do with what they look like, but it's not beauty, necessarily. It's just a look, something that's interesting in their face. Sometimes they have on an outfit that I just think is absolutely perfect.

I met people in Patterson Park, in Baltimore. Baltimore is just such a great city to find people in. It's still my place to find a model because it's such a rich history there, and a rich culture. It's a Black city, so it's just great.

It's home. I love it. I'll always love it. I've learned so much from this HBO film you're a part of, "Black Art in The Absence of Light." There's so much history to unpack. Can you give our viewers a brief synopsis of what the project is trying to accomplish?

I think it was really trying to, and is successful in illustrating, that we've been here all along, that Black artists have been here all along, that curators have been curating, and it didn't matter, but they still did it. They did it in the dark, and it didn't matter, because it's a part of our history, that is just coming to light.

Art history is a very long history, to a degree. People were drawing when they were cavemen, so we think about art history starting there and carrying that all the way up, and then understanding that, not receiving validation from the art market, until the 1900s? It's just insane. We carry an important story in myself, as an American painter, and as a Black female painter, and as a female painter, figuratively speaking, that history just isn't there.

For me, as an American painter, I realized that these images that I make are filling up gaps with photography. Because that was the only time that we've really had the opportunity to become authors of our own narrative, when the camera was invented. We could pose ourselves, and we could represent ourselves, and we could show up in these images the way that we wanted to be seen, versus the propaganda, that was being published through imagery. A lot of artists that were making work in the '60s and the '70s are receiving their due now, and they're in their 60s and 70s. And I think it's really important to honor them. David Driskell, what he did was create this movement that helped push us forward, in a way that may not have happened, had he not had the insight, and the impetus to do that.

You yourself are making history as an artist. Does it feel like that when you're just in a studio working? Is it something that's heavy on top of your shoulders? Or are you just free, and just working, and just breathing?

I'm free and I'm working, and I'm breathing. But it is funny, because when you think about this conversation, you being the writer that you are, this is like a historical conversation. But it's an honor to know that the work that you're making is creating an historical legacy. My work is being taught in schools now. I get tagged in a lot of things on Instagram. White kids in Portland are making portraits in my style, of themselves, or of Michelle Obama. It's just amazing. I didn't have that, growing up, and you probably didn't, either. The fact that they're working from Black imagery at such a young age it's life-changing for them. I have to hope it would lead to a better future for all of us.

I never met a professional artist or painter, or a writer, even, when I was growing up. So many professions that we come across in our social circles, just never, ever made it on my block. Where do you think your journey fits in, in context of the history of Black art, as portrayed in this film?

I think that the ideas that pushed me forward in my studio practice are having opportunity to make images that represent us in ways that we need to see ourselves. I make the work that I want to see in the world. I want to walk into a museum and see a beautiful painting of a Black person, that's just being Black. When I say that, that's just being a human being hanging out in this space, no contention, not in a teaching moment, not in resistance, just in a moment of leisure. I think for me, especially, over the past decade, I feel like we deserve these moments, where we can reflect upon ourselves. That's what I really want people to see, when they walk into a space, and look at a portrait, is that they're seeing beauty reflected back at them.

When I think about my place in art history, and I consider myself an American Realist because I paint these everyday moments, like Andrew Wyeth, or the artists who I grew up admiring, like Bo Bartlett, he painted families and living rooms. These are images we just didn't see, unless you were looking at your own family photographs. I think it's really important that these kinds of images become a part of, and fill up that space within the American art canon, just the simplicity of who we really are. I think my work really speaks to our interior space, and not that public identity that constantly remains in a space of activation, because we're always pushing forward for civil rights, and for justice, in so many different ways all the time. It's just the opportunity to take a deep breath. I think these paintings offer that space within our own narrative.

The beauty too is that you are young and alive, and so many artists didn't get their flowers until they were dead for 30 years. You get a chance to live in this world now and be an inspiration now. That is extremely powerful.

It's amazing. I wake up with that every single day. It doesn't happen to everybody. And I just feel very happy.

You are at the forefront of Black artists who are being called on today to tell stories that depict our place in modern history. You see that with your Breonna Taylor painting this summer on the cover of Vanity Fair that memorialized her in a way that America had not been introduced to her. Could you speak to that?

Having the opportunity to create that portrait was something that I never thought I'd be able to do. You hear her story on the news and I just never imagined that I would become a part of her life in such a huge way, that I would be working with her mother, to create something that could represent her legacy.

It was very emotional and some moments of levity. When I was trying to figure out what I wanted Breonna to wear, I didn't have a lot to work from. I remember I texted her mother some pictures of dresses. And she said, "I don't think Breonna would like any of these dresses." I'm like, "Oh, no." Long story short, she loved the painting, she loved the outfit. She thought that her representation was true to who she was. I think that it's really important that there is something that quantifies this moment, especially with violence against women. Breonna was and is the perfect subject for that. I think her story has inspired so many. And she belongs in American history, Black history and art history.

Absolutely, and it's such a beautiful piece. When I look at a lot of your work, I think about how as a Black creative person we're always viewed through this political lens. I could write an essay about playing basketball and how I don't trust people with small heads, and people are going to be like, "He made such a political statement." And I'm not even being political! I really just want to talk about basketball. Do you feel your work is political? Or do people push you into that space?

I think so. One thing that I was very aware of when I started to paint was you really couldn't tell who was making the work, whether it was a Black woman, a white man, you couldn't tell. When I see through that, I didn't want the conversation and the discourse to be marginalized just around identity, because of who we are. We're a kaleidoscopic people. We have so many ways of being in this world, and of being Black. I really wanted it to be about who we were on the inside. I did have a fear of it.

When I speak about a public identity, anything that has to do with Black skin is automatically political. So the work, being in a museum, on a museum wall after all these centuries of it not happening, is a political statement in itself. But there's other things underneath the surface, and on the surface, and around all of that, that are far more important than just this one narrative — it's about the way that we see ourselves, and the way that people see us. These figures in a museum express to the viewer that "This is what you should value." Because museums and institutions show us what's valuable, and what we should value.

Seeing Black figures, especially in museum spaces, allows the opportunity to communicate that, in a way, and hopefully transform people and the way that that they see us. It takes me back to a story, that was published about a group of young Black scholars that were on a field trip, I believe, to the Boston Museum of Fine Art. And they were made to feel like they didn't belong there. And I always imagined that, "What if my work had been in that space, like one of my big paintings?" When I think about these big paintings that I make, I'm really thinking about them confronting people in the museum. What if one of those pieces was there? Then they would have felt they had ownership in this space, and maybe those people wouldn't have looked at them like they didn't belong there.

I think it's extremely important. But then there's also a part of me who wants to get to that place, where we have the choice. Like, if I'm going to a television show, they're going to put "activist" as my lower third, but I don't even identify as an activist. Yes, I help people. Yes, I show love. Yes, I participate in all of these things. But maybe I just want to pull up as a public intellectual. Maybe I just want to pull up as a teacher. Maybe we're a hundred years of history away from that.

I feel the same way. I've been called an activist before. I'm not exactly comfortable with that label either.

Do you think it's getting easier for Black artists?

I don't know. In some ways, yes, and in some ways, no. I oftentimes question people's intentions when it comes to acquiring Black art now, and hoping that they're buying for the right reasons, and not because we're being seen as a trend right now. I think we make really great work, and I think we're really making work that really speaks to the moment. We're making what people need to see right now in our work, so we're really rising quickly, and gaining a lot of attention, but I want to make sure that we're still in the conversation 10, 15, 20 years from now.

This is bigger than just a moment. This is the culmination of a lot of hard work for all of us, and debt from master's degrees, and really putting forth an effort to make something that's empirical happen. The rush to find Black artists . . .  I feel there's some galleries that don't even know where to start. They're calling every Black curator. Poor Thelma Golden is probably receiving all the phone calls, "What should we do? How can we diversify?" You have to do the homework. Don't just ask me who you need to show. You should be doing the homework. And I think time will tell with it. This is a conversation that's running through my head for the past five years, and six years, and just watching, tapping, and being in the moment, and not quite being able to see it, because you are in the moment. I think it's one of those things that we'll look back at, and have a greater understanding of. But I know that, my contemporaries, that we deserve to be here.


And it's not because we're Black. It's because we're smart and we make some amazing work.

If you could just get all of the institutions, and the critics and the curators in a room, who have an interest in doing that work, what would you say to them?

This is a two-part answer. I was on the board for the Baltimore Museum for a couple of years, and I think that Christopher Bedford's approach was a really smart approach. He took the time to look at what was in that collection, so that they could begin to acquire the work of women artists, and Black artists. But he also thought about the audience. When you start to appreciate art, or poetry or writing, or anything, you need an introduction to it, in a sense. Christopher's idea was to exhibit figurative art for one or two years, and then, slowly move that into abstraction, and different things that are highly conceptual, that your average viewer, when they come to a museum, they feel alienated by it because they don't understand it. So I think, one, it's educating the viewer.

And then two, it's like, make your walls look the city that that museum and ask them what they want. I think it's really about listening, at this point, and not just being reactionary and doing. And I thought that the way that he proceeded with that was really brilliant.

Let's talk about the next steps, for Black artists, and Black art collectors. In the film, it mentions how Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz, and Beyoncé and Jay-Z have these great Black art collections. As a Black person who wants to be a collector, what types of things should we be doing?

I have so much respect for Alicia, for Swizz, for Jay-Z, Beyoncé, because people look at what they do. It's a big deal for them to introduce that to all the millions of followers that they have, to introduce any kind of art, Basquiat, whatever it is. What I always tell people when they say they want to start collecting is, to visit different graduate programs. Artists come out of these Master's programs. You're able to have conversations with real artists, and you can purchase from these young artists, and they may acquire some of their pieces early on.

I have a lot of people that bought my work early on when it was $3,000. It's gotten a return on their investment that they probably never expected. I respect and like that. They believed in me, and loved the work enough to buy it, not because they thought they were going to get a return on their investment because they really appreciated what I was doing, and what my vision was. But I think that's a really good way to get into collecting, to start that way, because it can be intimidating.

Once you reach a certain level, as a Black collector, I think a lot of times you get turned away, unless you have that resume that's like, "I'm on the board for this museum, and I already have these pieces from this artist." And if you're not able to spit those things out, then it's almost like, you don't qualify. I speak to my gallery all the time about making sure that we prioritize Black collectors because it's really important who's sitting at that table. We have to do that by making sure that they're part of the full conversation, and the only way that that can happen is if we speak up, as Black artists and galleries, and some of them are institutions in themselves.

Speaking of gatherings, you have a new show in LA. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

I am opening a show. It's a five-painting show. It's the smallest show I've done, but it's three of the largest paintings I've ever done, so I'm really excited about it. I named it The Great American Fact. I came across the readings of Anna Julia Cooper, she was a Black female educator from the 1800s. That title really resonated with me because I feel like it just speaks to this moment of, "We're here, and we've been here, and you can't do anything about it." So I'm just really excited. It's my first LA show, and I'm excited to get out there, and hopefully, people in LA will start wearing their masks.

"Black Art: In the Absence of Light" is currently streaming on HBO Max.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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