For centuries black people appeared in art as slaves or exotic novelties – and the painter Kerry James Marshall wants to challenge these racist ideas. He talks to Alastair Sooke.

“When I go to the movies, I’m expected to identify with all of the characters, and most of them are white,” says the African-American artist Kerry James Marshall, sitting on the top floor of David Zwirner’s immaculate gallery in a Mayfair townhouse in London, where his new exhibition of paintings Look See has just opened. “But when you put a black character in there, somehow the white audience isn’t expected to identify with them. That’s a problem.”

He smiles, before continuing: “If you walk into any magazine store, I guarantee that nine out of 10 covers will feature white, blonde, blue-eyed, slim women because that’s still the ideal of beauty. When a black or Asian figure shows up in a fashion magazine, she’s the exception, not the rule. So what does that mean when we talk about equality? To me, equality means that I would be as likely to see black figures as anybody else.”

Now 59, Marshall may have little sway in the world of moviemaking or the fashion industry, but he is doing his damnedest to ensure equality for black people in contemporary art. It is more than three decades since he painted Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self (1980), a caustic, subversive work in which the whites of a schematic black man’s eyes, as well as his bright teeth and shirt, float against a dark background. “That grin referred to a joke people used to tell about black people,” he says. “That they are so dark you couldn’t see them at night unless they were smiling.”

Since then, he has earned acclaim for placing black figures centre-stage within his complex, beautiful paintings – and his new exhibition continues this campaign. From the victorious beauty queen and the happy couple enjoying cocktails in a nightclub, to the models in an artist’s studio and the woman holding up a pink towel against her chest, every figure in the show is black.

Not only that, but their skin tone is strikingly uniform: ebony-dark, with an attractive, satiny sheen. “The blackness of my figures is supposed to be unequivocal, absolute and unmediated,” Marshall explains. “They are a response to the tendency in the culture to privilege lightness. The lighter the skin, the more acceptable you are. The darker the skin, the more marginalised you become. I want to demonstrate that you can produce beauty in the context of a figure that has that kind of velvety blackness. It can be done.”

On the margins

It feels sad to write this in 2014, but seeing black people represented in paintings in this fashion remains unusual. In part this is the legacy of the way that they were traditionally presented within art history.

Western artists often cast a black figure as one of the magi when painting the stock scene of the Adoration of the Kings (Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance altarpiece on this theme in the National Gallery in London is a good example). Other than that, though, black people usually appear in Western art as peripheral servants: the Moorish page to the left of Van Dyck’s 1634 portrait of Princess Henrietta of Lorraine or the woman bearing flowers in the background of Manet’s famous nude Olympia (1863) are both typical of this trend. “Those are the two primary forms of representation,” says Marshall, “although you might also see images of black people in the process of being conquered.”

Marshall, who was born in Birmingham, Alabama and grew up in the South Central area of Los Angeles, first became aware of the invisibility of black people within what he calls “the visual field” not by visiting museums but by reading comic books. “There were no black superheroes,” he recalls. “When they did introduce the Black Panther in Fantastic Four [in 1966], I became acutely aware that the black superhero was a strange phenomenon – an exception to the rule. Then I started noticing the same thing everywhere else. Black figures were never the central subjects in art-history books.”

There is no rancour in Marshall’s voice when he says this: rather, it is obvious that he loves art history and hopes to emulate the Old Masters, not raze them to the ground. But he does lament the fact that black artists still have to negotiate a predominantly white art world.

Figuring it out

Of course, in recent decades, many black artists have enjoyed enormous success, from Jean-Michel Basquiat in the ‘80s to Kara Walker, Yinka Shonibare, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Steve McQueen today. But Marshall believes that there is still much work to be done.

“For black people,” he says, “everything we do has to be ratified and endorsed by a power structure that is white. And that reinforces a kind of racial hierarchy where whiteness is the privileged position to be in, and ethnicity is problematic. But if you are always standing on the sideline as witness to other people achieving great things, then ultimately that has a damaging psychological effect because it undermines your sense of self-worth.”

This is why Marshall is so keen to thrust black figures into the limelight in his art. “The reason why I do figurative work is because I think the presence of those figures is really important,” he says. “What is of value in the work I have done is that I am bringing with me an image that a lot of other people are afraid to bring into the mainstream. Eventually, I want the presence of black figures in the art-history books to be commonplace.” Slowly but surely, he is rewriting art history, one picture at a time.

Alastair Sooke is art critic of The Daily Telegraph

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