The Driskell Center at the University of Maryland opened Portraits of Who We Are—an exhibition of self-portraits by African American artists—the same month that President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama’s portraits by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald were unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery. The Obama’s non-traditional Presidential portraits make a statement about their time in the White House as the first African-American family to hold such privilege, which is what good portraits should do.
As artists, the portraitists of Portraits of Who We Are are constantly aware of the viewer, and through portraiture, we see them in a way they want us to see them. The portraits convey a kind of vulnerability the artists typically expect from their subjects. While portraits by Mickalene Thomas and Barkley Hendricks are photographs and Meta Vaux Walker Fuller’s portrait is a sculpture, most of the self-portraits in the exhibition are drawings and paintings where the artists’ hand is evident, and they tell us things with each stroke of their instrument.
The details included in the portraits allow us a connection to the time in which the artworks were created. Where Hank Willis Thomas’ “Branded Chest, 2003” (2011) frames the artist’s midsection with a Nike check branded on to his chest, William H. Johnson’s “Self-Portrait with Pipe” (1937) pictures the artist fully clothed in a suit, smoking a pipe. Thomas is alluding to the commodification of the black male body and Johnson is depicted as a cultured and civilized man. Each artists’ portrait is an extension of his or her own artistic agenda.
The portrait as a form of art has made a reemergence onto the art scene as of late. Since Wiley’s successful entrance onto the world’s stage, the Yale University and Studio Museum in Harlem alum has inspired scores of artists to insert black likenesses into the Western art historical canon. But it should be noted that African Americans have been creating fine art worldwide since the 19th century. In the case of portraitist and landscape painter Edward Mitchell Bannister, who took first prize at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, when it was found out he was black, they attempted to rescind the award. This was not an isolated incident.
Portraits of Who We Are offers evidence of the many artists who have been attempting to insert the African-American experience into the Western art historical canon. The portraits span from 1915 to 2017 and include works of quite well-known artists like Carrie Mae Weems, as well as up-and-coming artists like Alfred Conteh. Others, including Beauford Delaney, Aaron Douglass, and Elizabeth Catlett are more well known, but to see a lineage of African-American artists—each who fought for inclusion—gives a greater appreciation for Wiley and Sherald, showing how far the art world has come. But given some of the comments after Wiley and Sherald’s portraits were revealed, it’s clear there’s still some resistance.
At the Driskell Center to May 18. 1214 Cole Student Activities Bldg. University of Maryland, College Park. Free. (301) 314-2615. driskellcenter.umd.edu.