Written by Troy Johnson

Kerry James Marshall has tasked himself with reconciling an almost exclusively white history of Western art with unequivocal and unapologetic blackness. His works consistently address the push and pull African American artists face within the diaspora. I have chosen two pieces from Rennie Museum’s Kerry James Marshall: Collected Works exhibition that articulate this experience expertly: one, a painting, and the other, an installation. It is perhaps Marshall’s paintings that have brought most of the guests to the museum as he is referred to most often as a master painter. Even I thought the exhibition would consist of primarily, if not entirely, paintings when I first heard his work would be on show. Once inside the space; however, it becomes clear that the strength of the exhibition lies in the interaction between the various mediums Marshall chooses to work with. By not limiting himself to just one, Marshall is able to engage with a broader scope of the history of Western art. Both pieces speak to the African diaspora in complex ways. Perhaps more importantly, both pieces address struggles relating to black identity without portraying African Americans as victims. Through this exchange between painting and sculpture, Marshall depicts the African American body not simply as it has formed through loss, but as it has grown and thrived from one generation to the next within the diaspora.

Kerry James Marshall
Wake, 2003-2005

As the only installation amongst eight paintings in the room, Wake (2003-2005) has a way of commanding attention. The installation piece comprised of a sailboat model on a black Plexiglas base is one of those rare works that feel heavy. It weighs on your body and mind even after you’ve left the museum. The sailboat and its base are covered in about a thousand plastic medallions in various colours. As you approach the piece, it becomes clear that each medallion features a portrait of a black figure. Marshall has been continuously adding to the boat and its base, incorporating gold chains and fishing net to accommodate the number of medallions it now carries. This ever-growing nature of the work speaks to the way in which Africans have proliferated in North America in the wake of slavery; paralleling the growth of life within black identity and tracing the shift from African to African American.

In conversations with Marshall during the May installation, the artist recalled his appreciation for Nkondi figures, wood-carved religious idols from the Congo that are believed to house spirits. Nails are driven into the figures to awaken these housed spirits for various purposes. These figures, in turn, bear the markings of the societies that use them, eventually adorned with hundreds of nails.

As an artist working within the African diaspora, Marshall is not part of a culture that uses Nkondi figures in its visual language. Perhaps cognizant of a history of art that has long fetishized the visual language of Africa, Marshall’s art borrows from African art in a way that differs from artists like Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, who sought to exoticize non-Western aesthetics from a colonial perspective. One can see the influence of Nkondi sculpture and its process of purposeful accumulation amongst Wake’s ornamentation. The installation continues to evolve and, in doing so, it bears the markers of social change. The legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, as Marshall has put it, finds itself in the creation of a population that has thrived in spite of the violence to which it has been subject. By using a medium and materials to which he feels more connected, Marshall disrupts the colonial gaze long employed by artists in the Western canon of Art History.

Around the corner, X-Man (1989) hangs on a grey wall in the museum’s smallest room. A black body is simply rendered on unstretched canvas with the words “X-MAN” in bold typeface above his head. A few years prior to this painting’s completion Marshall executed a seminal series of black-on-black paintings, including Invisible Man (1986), which is hung in the same room. These works engage with the idea of invisibility relating to the black body. X-Man, however, is distinguishable by its medium: its unstretched canvas is reminiscent of both Renaissance tapestry and burlap feed sacks. The work features a black figure on a monochromatic background of red and green—recalling the Pan-African flag. The entire image is covered with a painted white veil, signifying perhaps a sense of erasure or white-washing.

Kerry James Marshall
X-Man , 1989

The figure of the X-Man embodies the African diaspora. Treated as chattel, enslaved Africans were divorced from their respective cultures. They were unable to read or write English; therefore, they had to sign all documents with an ‘X’. The ‘X’ functions both as an unknown variable and an identifier for bodies within the African diaspora. This is exemplified by figures like Malcolm X who have decided to disown their surnames, names given to their ancestors by their owners, in favour of the ‘X’. Often, to operate within the African diaspora is to exist visually outside the racial majority while feeling culturally separate from one’s African heritage. However, Marshall uses an unmistakable comic book style typeface for X-Man, championing the body to which it refers. To be black is to constantly reaffirm one’s identity against a steady influx of labels and stereotypes.

W.E.B. DuBois refers to African Americans as “gifted with second-sight”, meaning black individuals see themselves primarily through the eyes of the white majority. He elaborates, “it is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity”. * To behold X-Man as a person of colour is to see one’s self through the eyes of those who regard you with fear. Stark black bodies bring up an extremely fraught history of representation. Jim Crow depictions of the black body in its satires and minstrels come to mind almost instantly with Marshall’s early black figures. As a result, the work is distinctly self-aware. Marshall leans in to blackness as caricature, perhaps as a form of catharsis. This reminds us to not simply consider the lack of representation afforded to the black body, but to weigh instead the significance of the representation that does exist.

Marshall speaks to the civil rights movement, and the subjugation of African Americans more generally, with a familiarity that comes from lived experience. Both pieces portray the loss that has created the African diaspora while maintaining a strong sense of empowerment. To say Marshall’s art is optimistic would not do justice to the nuance with which he works, but there is a distinct effort made to avoid depicting black bodies as casualties or martyrs. Marshall thus demonstrates the power of recognizing violence and injustice endured by black bodies without portraying these bodies as victims; masterfully acknowledging history while relentlessly seeking progress.

*Du Bois, W.E.B. “The Souls of Black Folk”. Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1903. Print.