Three dark men take the foreground wearing suits. Easter baskets sitting amongst them in a field full of spring flowers seem to suggest that the men could be just returning from an Easter mass. In a Chicago housing development they are working on a garden that seems to have overgrown even the welcoming sign at the entrance of the projects.
Yet when closely examined, the abstract technique of the flowers resemble graffiti dripping down the material of the welcome sign. The two men working on the garden could be digging rather than planting, picking, watering, or feeding flowers. Their garden patch seems geometrically irregular – the size and shape of a grave rather than of any traditional bed of flowers. One man’s black jacket hangs from the welcome sign, taking a shape that appears to be that of a specter over the man’s shoulder. But it is Easter and death comes with rebirth. Viewers see an image that at once acknowledges and includes romantic idealisms and contemporary realities.
This piece, titled Many Mansions (1994), is part of Kerry James Marshall’s Five Garden Project. The Five Garden Project was born out of Marshall’s time in Chicago, during which he noticed that many of the names of Chicago’s housing projects had idyllic names often with the word “garden” in them. Kerry James Marshall had previously lived in Birmingham, Alabama and moved to Los Angeles, California in 1963, the same year of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. After experiencing the 1965-Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles, Marshall became “a child of the civil rights movement.”
Marshall masterfully rebuilds elements of Western art history and introduces an excluded narrative. Pivotal paintings in the exhibit depict the contemporary difficulties of being an African-American, while at the same time celebrate black culture. Marshall’s work develops visions of this narrative with a level of optimism, embracing ugly contemporary and historical realities as a means of expression that takes the initiative to herald a bright future. Kerry James Marshall synthesizes a current historical moment that Emily Vey Duke, professor at Syracuse University, described as “the new moment that we have entered is partially from movements like Black Lives Matter, but then its also from work of feminists, people of color, post-colonial theorists, who have been working to create more fairness in institutions for years.”
Many themes discussed by Marshall are inspired by his experiences as a black man in America. Using direct allusion such as the careful placements of a saint’s halo and a depiction of Adam and Eve, Marshall constantly engages with the classical Western narrative that we know through the collection of texts and arts that have historically been the most influential in Western culture. He presents the telling of a story that has been reiterated throughout history – powerfully challenging the Western narrative not just as it lives in today’s world, but by going back to the foundations of what we conceive as the world we live in today. By doing this he creates a natural space for identity and a generative conversation with his audience – a conversation that starts, but doesn’t end, with Marshall’s art.
Pamela Franks, Deputy Director for Exhibitions, Programming, and Education and the Seymour H. Knox, Jr., Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, at the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG) commented on Marshall’s work in an interview with The Politic.
“[Marshall] has studied art history and he is deeply familiar with the Western canon and his career as an artist has been devoted to thinking about himself as a black artist and where he fits in that history and actively making a place for himself as an artist in that history. He’s changing the cannon through his work, but also engaging with it in a way that has changed the direction that the ongoing history of art is taking.”
This addresses the incredible vacuum that has existed in art museums throughout the United States. In an interview with The Politic, artist and professor Emily Vey Duke described how institutions, especially art museums, play a role in perpetuating the stories we value and that rooms, series, and exhibits dedicated to American Art all over the nation are dominated largely by white artists. While this is changing, it is doing so in a gradual lumber.
Likely for the sake of tradition’s expediency and commonplace, institutions largely rely on the same narratives despite the fact, as Franks said, “The history of African-American art is an integral part of American art and is such an important part of the history of American art.”
This conversation must be allowed a certain emphasis in light of events national and local. Yale University takes a quintessential place in this – the university is an origin for American’s own edition of the Western narrative. As an institution and a community, Yale confronted questions that pressure this narrative.
Erica James, Professor of History of Art, praised the YUAG for developing holdings that present not just an account of traditional artistic excellence, but also form a narrative in a richer intellectual and artistic context. Franks spoke about the YUAG’s institutional commitment to holistically representing American art, commenting that they have incorporated African American art into the broader exhibits. However she recognized a lack of representation and thus has prioritized the acquisition of African American art in the last two decades.
American History Revisited, on view at the YUAG, incorporates art from esteemed photographer Carrie Mae Weems and paintings from Yale graduate Titus Kaphar. This exhibit brings these questions of narrative to the fore, both in the global context of Western imperialism but also in a more precise beam, directed specifically at Yale, making Elihu Yale himself a participant in the works. The works actualize an important institutional realization on Yale’s part – a developed and critical self-awareness. This postures for an increase in knowledge through the realization of a more complete story and the acceptance of that story as part of Yale’s own history.
We can break from this Western binary when observing the Kerry James Marhall’s Tree of Life, wrapped in a police line with a fruit full of bullets or Percy the barber in the pose of a saint with a dapper client that has a hairstyle resembling a royal headdress or the other customer sitting and waiting his turn with a hairstyle reminiscent of a papal mitre. Here, Marshall takes us on a thoughtful course of careful engagement with and examination of past and contemporary history. He offers us views into the past that re-inform and redefine how we know our preset selves, abandoning no one and forgetting nothing.
This lesson extends past the boundaries of Yale and even the West. Kerry James Marshall offers observers of his a work a window into the African American experience. He tells a story that is decisively black, but offers universal historical, political, intellectual, and humanistic interpretation. His work depicts struggle, celebration, and an examination of life’s questions that can be appreciated no matter one’s background. Marshall uses his understanding of the history of art to transform and redirect that history, at once making it his own and all of ours.