Kerry James Marshall's first Canadian solo show opened at the Vancouver Art Gallery over the weekend, and before that he kindly made time to chat with me on the phone about some aspects of his practice, including his thoughts on images of black people (or lack thereof) in art museums. A few exchanges from our conversation appear in today's National Post. An excerpt:
Q At the age of 14, you vowed never to paint a white person. Why?
A That statement came from thinking about art history. When you read art books and go to museums, almost all the people you see in paintings are white. When you take classes at art schools, almost all the models -- at least that we had -- were white. What you do with that experience is take for granted that white-figure representation is what constitutes art. The idea of the black figure in pictures is not something that people have as part of their common experience.
So when I first started making pictures, that was what I did, too--I made compositions with white figures, because "that's what art looked like." Since then, I became interested in what people expect to see when they go to a museum. That's why I decided I would always paint black figures--to me, that has the greatest transformative effect on people's expectations of art.
When it becomes common to see black figures in art, there won't be a need to make that statement. But until then, you have to hold to a conscious effort to introduce something different into people's art-going experiences.
Image of Kerry James Marshall's Our Town (1995) from Saatchi Gallery (which reproduces some of Marshall's advice to young artists well worth reading)