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“Blackness in the Extreme”: Kerry James Marshall

A school group engages in a discussion in front of Kerry James Marshall's "Our Town."

Artist Kerry James Marshall will be visiting Crystal Bridges on November 12 to offer a Keynote Lecture about his work.  Marshall’s large painting Our Town is in the Museum’s permanent collection. (The work is not currently on view while the State of the Art exhibition occupies the Twentieth-Century Art Gallery.)

A school group engages in a discussion in front of Kerry James Marshall's  "Our Town."

A school group engages in a discussion in front of Kerry James Marshall’s “Our Town.”

Marshall is well-known for his images of African American life and culture in which the figures are depicted in a deep black. The unapologetic color is a deliberate tactic by which the artist emphasizes the blackness of his subjects, and draws pointed attention to their presence in an art world that notably lacks images of African Americans. It is also a means of embracing and celebrating the dark skin tone we commonly refer to as “black,” along with all of its cultural and historical associations, from the Black Power movement of the 1960s and ’70s to the paper bag test of the early twentieth century by which lighter-skinned African Americans were shown preference over those of a darker shade.

“The blackness is a rhetorical device,” Marshall said. “When we talk about ourselves as a people and as a culture, we talk about black history, black culture, black music. That’s the rhetorical position we occupy. Somebody has to start representing that blackness in the extreme and letting it be beautiful.”
That does not mean that every image in his works is beautiful, or that all the subjects are positive.  He has explained it this way:
“There has been a tradition of negative representation of black people, and the counter-tradition to that has been a certain kind of positive image, a thrust on the part of some black artists to offset the degradation that maybe some of the other negative stereotypic images present. But both, in a lot of ways, ended up being a kind of stereotype that denied a certain kind of complexity in the way the black image could be represented. So I thought, well, there’s got to be a way to do both, to do two things at once.”  (You can read more of this interview here.)
Our Town is a frequent stop on the Museum’s school group tours. Educators use the painting to open up discussions about color, symbols, and narrative in art.


Linda DeBerry
Senior Copy Editor / Publications Manager

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