Sunday, February 24, 2019

Black Male Identity Politics in Art: The Black Romantic

        Over the past two decades, there has been a global push to diversify and normalize positive images of blackness in all forms of media. A concept known as the Black Romantic has been used to describe this phenomenon within the Identity Politics art movement. Awareness of Black males in this spectrum piqued when Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of former President Barack Obama went viral on social media platforms everywhere. Even before Wiley’s work, Black Male Identity Politics in art grounded its roots in the Harlem Renaissance era with painter Charles White. 
        His lithograph piece, Gideon, utilized layered line contours to depict realistic depth and phenotypical African American features to articulate alternative beauty standards. The right facing position of the model on the paper makes the viewer interpret themselves looking upwards, in a heroic fashion fitting of the name Gideon, who was a military leader and prophet from the book of Judges in the Bible. Charles White and his artistic repertoire stood in active opposition to caricatures by humanizing African American males and realistically illustrating the beauty of the Black race.           
        White’s abilities extended into his teaching career and inspired a student by the name of Kerry James Marshall. He built an artistic flair of depicting the protagonists as jet black skin tone combined with the bright and vibrant environments, equating outside color value with aesthetic African American beauty standards. A piece most reminiscent of Gideon painted by Marshall would be the Untitled (Stono Drawing), where the male model has a straight on perspective and direct communication to the observer. His mane of thick locs paired with his elaborate white coat indicate a heroic stature. Shoulder poise and facial expression absent of simplicity invoke a deep question of the model’s disposition, stark contrasts of light and darkness gift him strength. 
        Kerry James Marshall continues the lineage of the black romantic and his work influences many present-day artists, such as Kehinde Wiley and William Paul Thomas, a resident artist at the Duke Rubenstein Arts Center. In the art collection of 2013, Kehinde Wiley completed an oil painting named Casey Riley, that maintains similar poise and facial stature that is seen with Charles White and Kerry James Marshall. The model position is more direct than seen in Gideon and is looking left almost as if appreciating a glorious past, basking in the light as it rebounds off of his cinnamon skin. Heroic elements are also present with the gold accent overlay, which is another nod to Charles White and his work. 
        Similarly, artist William Paul Thomas has been working on a collection called Cyanosis, which are illustrations of the societal suffocation imposed onto the Black male in America. Many of the models possess complex emotive stances and vary in age, while maintaining cultural appreciation and the beauty of the Black male. Also, the models are Black males that have contributed to the life of Thomas as well, making a personal connection between them and the world around them through a common experience across generations. 

Works Cited
Charles White (American, 1918-1979), Gideon, 1951. Lithograph in black on ivory wove paper, printed by Robert Blackburn (American, 1920–2003), 338 x 260 mm (image); 509 x 390 mm (sheet). The Art Institute of Chicago, Margaret Fisher Fund, 2017.300 © The Charles White Archives Inc. 
Kerry James Marshall. Untitled (Stono Drawing). 2012. Watercolor, ink, and pencil on paper. Acquired through the generosity of Thelma and AC Hudgins, Donald B. Marron, and Susan G. Jacoby in honor of her mother Marjorie L. Goldberger. © 2019 Kerry James Marshall. 
Kehinde Wiley. CASEY RILEY. 2013. OIL ON CANVAS 48" X 36". 

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