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Examining the Black Experience in Contemporary Culture | Black Anatomy

February 10, 2022 | Features

Written by Elizabeth Goddard, Executive Director, Spartanburg Art Museum

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Crystal Marshall Black Body I 

Spartanburg Art Museum plans exhibition programming years in advance. Black Anatomy was an idea that unfolded while the curatorial staff was reviewing submissions back in 2020, and they saw many conceptual commonalities between four participating artists; Frederick Hayes, Donte Hayes, Crystal Marshall, and Carla Jay Harris. We chose the title, Black Anatomy because these artists refer to the experiences of body as a subject in some way or another. The word anatomy means the study of the structure of the internal workings of something. It lends itself to the process of looking deeper at the internal workings of the Black experience, historically and in contemporary culture.

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Kehinde Wiley, King and the High Priest (2014); gold leaf and oil on wood panel. & Kehinde Wiley, Portrait of Elodi Dielubanza (2019); acrylic on canvas.

Last week I was fortunate to travel with a friend to the High Museum in Atlanta, GA to specifically take in the Obama portraits painted by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald. These magnificent works of art are on tour from the National Portrait Gallery and will be on view at the High Museum through March 20 before moving on to The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas. While viewing Wiley’s portrait of Barack I was struck by the similarities between his work and that of Black Anatomy artist, Frederick Hayes, who also creates portraits. 

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Carla Jay Harris, Bitter Earth (2018); archival pigment prints on custom paper.

Wiley came to the forefront of contemporary art 20 years ago with his Passing/Posing series of paintings, where he would use ordinary subjects (people he would meet on the streets of New York) and place them in classic Old Master formulas of portraiture. His intent was to replace a cultural narrative of white men of historical significance with contemporary Black men.  He was painting ordinary citizens to resemble people of power. He painted people who were not, until recently, represented in institutions like the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. Regarding his Obama portrait he writes, “What I am doing here in this particular commission is dealing not only with the idea of power in a portrait but literal power in a portrait.” 

271878039_994742467920213_7420388783623906989_n.jpg273025704_244553014505390_5256819821741608097_n.jpgFrederick Hayes, Morning Glory (2014); wood, acrylic, dowels, screws, + glue & Frederick Hayes, Assorted Acrylic Portraits (2006-Present); acrylic on canvas.

Fredrick Hayes also draws and paints portraits. His intent is like Wiley’s in that he aims to express the beauty, individuality, and humanity of his subjects. Hayes’ sources of inspiration differ from Wiley, but they both share the intent to represent people who may never have had their portraits painted, and most certainly would not see themselves portrayed as subjects in historic art museums. Hayes’ work contributes to the conversation of whose image is worthy of hanging in an art museum. Both artists aim to redefine a sense of value for subjects that look like them. They paint with power to redefine a very narrow lens that has historically excluded, marginalized, and assigned no value in the traditional, white-centric world of art museums.

Black Anatomy, opening Thursday, February 17, will similarly question the role of traditional parameters in western art and art institutions. Through sculptural installations, drawings, paintings, and more, the four artists featured in Black Anatomy illustrate a shared understanding of the Black experience in contemporary culture. This exhibit will be on view through June 20; please visit www.spartanburgartmuseum.org for more information. 

Donte__K_Hayes_Sage_1a.jpgDonte Hayes Sage

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