Kerry James Marshall’s Still Life with Wedding Portrait is a deeply evocative painting which combines American history and contemporary politics. Part homage to a civil rights hero, part critique of the traditions of art history, this large-scale painting powerfully reminds us of the exclusion of African American culture and history in the wider art historical canon. Exhibited in the artist’s critically acclaimed retrospective of paintings (organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and which recently concluded at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles), this painting resonates powerfully with our current political climate in which issues of race continue to come under close examination.
As the title suggests Still Life with Wedding Portrait proports to be, initially at least, a formal painting marking the marriage of Harriet Tubman to her first husband, John. Tubman wears a smart blue dress with a series of large gold colored buttons rising to a high collar culminating in a large white bow. Her hair is swept back in a tight bun, adorned by a simple flower. With her arms crossed, she appears confident as she stares out of the picture plane, engaging directly with the viewer. Behind her, partly obscured by her shadow, is Tubman’s first husband John. Just as in the painting, in life Tubman’s reputation overshadowed that of her husband, as relatively nothing is known about him, other than he was a free man whom she married in 1844. Above the pair, in the upper left corner, their names and date of the wedding is written in a cursive script so elaborate that it almost appears as though an attempt has been made to cross out the names and obscure them from history.
Harriet Tubman has become one of the most recognized names in the history of the civil rights movement. As an abolitionist and humanitarian, she has assumed the role of a powerful figurehead, celebrated for her commitment and bravery. She was born in the early 1820s in Dorchester County, Maryland, and although both her parents were slaves, at the age of 27 she escaped from her owner to Pennsylvania. After her successful journey to freedom, she made approximately thirteen missions to rescue some seventy enslaved people, family, and friends using the network known as the Underground Railroad. She also helped the abolitionist John Brown recruit men for his own raid on Harpers Ferry, and after the Civil War became an active campaigner in the fight for women’s suffrage.
Yet, Kerry James Marshall’s portrait of Tubman and her husband portrays more than just the marriage of this notable couple—it is also an institutional critic of the racism that is inherent in art history. This is shown in the wider composition, in the two pairs of gloved hands seen mounting this painting on a pristine gallery wall. One pair of hands is protected by a pair white gloves, masking the identity of the owner, but the other person wears one white glove and one black one. This evokes the symbolic glove worn by Tommie Smith and John Carlos while receiving their medals at 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City. The pair became famous for their protest of apartheid in South Africa and the racial inequality in the United States, when they raised their fists in a salute during the medal ceremony for the 200m race. As a result, they were booed by the crowd and forced out of the games by the International Olympic Committee.
In addition, a striking similarity has been noted between the image of Harriet and John Tubman, and that of a young Barack and Michelle Obama. When the Senator from Illinois was elected to be the 44th President of the United States, there was widespread hope that America might have taken a long-awaited step to resolving the lingering issues of race within its society. But, painted in 2015 (the year of the riots in Ferguson, Missouri sparked by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer), this painting could be said to be evidence that the issue of race is far from being resolved. As critic Francey Russell notes, “By including the art handler’s hands, by staging the act of staging, by calling our attention not just to the Tubmans but to their place and placement in America’s history and present, Marshall is clear that we are not there yet” (F. Russell, “Precarious Paintings, Precarious Lives: On ‘Kerry James Marhsall: Mastry,’” LA Review of Books, June 28, 2016, via https://lareviewofbooks.org/ article/precarious-paintings-precarious-lives-kerry-jamesmarshall-mastry/#! [accessed 9/23/2017]).
Recalling centuries of portraiture, Marshall’s adoption of the conventions of Old Master painting in confronting contemporary issues is a deliberate strategy, and a central part of his painterly practice. “He believes very strongly in speaking in the old master language,” claims Ian Alteveer, associate curator of modern and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “He sees it as a continuum, and he sees things like Conceptual art as aberrant, maybe, but certainly not as the way he was going to achieve what he wanted” (I. Alteveer, quoted by R. Kennedy, “Kerry James Marshall, Boldly Repainting Art History,” September9, 2016, via https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/18/arts/design/kerry-james-marshall-met-breuer-mastry.html[accessed 9/23/2017]).
Still Life with Wedding Portrait was included in the artist’s recent critically acclaimed exhibition organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and which later travelled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and more recently, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. It was Kerry James Marshall’s first paintings retrospective and was hailed by critics as a long overdue and well-deserved recognition for a three-decades long career. The Guardian’s art critic described it as “…a stone-cold stunner which proudly insists on the place of African Americans in the American artistic imagination, using the tropes of exclusionary imagery to new, more moral ends” (J. Farago, “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry exhibition review—A sumptuous symphony in black,” The Guardian, October 28, 2016, via https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/oct/28/kerry-james-marshallretrospective-mastry [accessed 9/27/20174]).
Though the faces that stare out of Still Life with Wedding Portrait are historical ones, they none-the-less bear witness to issues and questions in American society which have yet to be resolved. That Kerry James Marshall should adopt art historical tropes to continue to raise such questions in the 21st century—almost two centuries after Harriet Tubman lived—demonstrates how relevant these issues continue to be. “Marshall’s uncanny, intense blackness has both a personal derivation and a conceptual underpinning. His figures are not faithful depiction of black individuals. They’re signs, and they channel and frustrate a centuries-long history of representations of blackness as evil, inferior, or simply absent – before then, gloriously, asserting the prestige afforded to those representations as Marshall’s rightful inheritance” (J. Farago, ibid).