Portraits are usually done with the subject facing forward and gazing at the artist while tolerating the gaze of the artist and all that the artist’s gaze carries. There is, inherent in this sitting-sitter situation, an imbalanced power dynamic that tips towards the artist.
Usually, it is the artist who is in control of the physical space: where and how the sitter is sitting and for how long.
Usually it is the artist who is in control of the product: the color, composition, size, and degree of realism and representation.
This imbalance of power is expected and accepted to a degree. That degree can shift with the age of the sitter, the gender difference between sitter and artist, what is being asked of the sitter, along with a variety of other factors.
Because of the type of work I am engaged in, I am interested in one specific factor in this sitter/artist power dynamic and that is race.
As a native New Yorker who was raised in a Black community and who has taught at the high school level for the past eight years in a Harlem public school, I have, in my practice of figurative painting, been sensitive (and guided) by Kerry James Marshall’s stance regarding the art world’s chronic announcement of the death of figurative work; the idea that the death of figurative work is presumptive considering the lack of Black figures and Black faces that inhabit museum and gallery walls. My portrait work has largely included men and women of color in alignment with Marshall’s sentiment.
But, as a man who is not of African-American decent, is it my place to “serve” Marshall’s cry?
In 2016, Dana Schultz, a white artist exhibited the painting, “Open Casket”—a depiction of the infamous picture of Emmett Till, a 1955 victim of lynching. The exhibition resulted in an outcry at the idea of a white woman using the image of a young Black man who had been violently murdered by white racists. One could deduce that the overall sentiment of the protesters was against a white person co-opting or appropriating an image that is so steeped in the Black experience that the image “belongs” to the Black community and that it was improper for a person outside of the community to manipulate it, use it, and exhibit it. Schultz’ reply to the backlash was that she painted “Open Casket” not taking into account race, but taking the image and the incident from the point of view of a mother who lost a son.
Currently at the Drawing Center, the main room is exhibiting works by Nigerian artist, Toyin Ojih Odutola. Much of Odutola’s portraits of people of color are about consideration. The subjects (all Black/brown people) are looking away from the gaze of the artist as though they do not care that they are being looked at and maybe even do not wish to be looked at. To portrait artists, it calls into question the feelings of our subjects, but to me, a portrait artist who works predominately with Black people-as-subjects, it drags into that question the idea of race and the concept of othering.
I am a half-Mexican, half-German man.
In many circles, I can pass as white.
Do I have the right, despite intentions and politics, to co-opt, use, and exhibit Black images? Does anyone have that right outside of the Black community and the Black experience?
If I continue to do so, what considerations do I need to take into account about my Black subjects, Black history, the Black community, and the place and sentiments of Black artists when working with primarily Black subjects?
To say that this line of inquiry is over-thinking the work, I believe, is insensitive while obsessing about this line of inquiry could be damaging to the work. I am thinking about exploring this idea and the questions above for my research paper: The idea of the non-Black gaze on the Black body in art.