How does art both shape and reflect understandings of race in the United States?
How do power and privilege affect the way we express ourselves?
How might art help us build more just, equitable societies?
In his painting Great America, Kerry James Marshall borrows imagery from an amusement park ride to explore the trauma of the Middle Passage. Four individuals packed into a car recall the horrific experience of millions who were forcibly transported across the Atlantic Ocean. The head of a man bobs in the water, a reminder that many died during the journey and were thrown overboard. The figures emerge from a tunnel filled with cartoon ghosts—evoking Ku Klux Klan costumes—and into a scene packed with symbols. Marshall incorporates words associated with theme parks, like “wow” and “fun”; but he covers up the word “fun” and “wow” drips red. The Red Cross at upper left is a crossroads, simultaneously representing distress and rescue. Veves, symbols of West African and Haitian religions, adorn the cramped vessel. A large, transparent cartoon ghost overlays the left half of the painting, perhaps suggesting how enslavement haunts the United States’ past and present.
As an African American child growing up in Los Angeles, Marshall visited art museums, but he rarely saw people who looked like him on the gallery walls. He now endeavors to make works that address this absence by celebrating African American life and history in multiple art forms. He paints his figures with black and gray pigments to emphasize their Blackness. “When you go to an art museum,” Marshall says, “the thing you’re least likely to encounter is a picture of a black person. When it comes to ideas about art and about beauty, the black figure is absent.”
Marshall’s painting asks us to confront our shared histories, power structures, and institutional systems. Whose stories are told and celebrated—and why? What is deemed important and how? And what role do we have in validating or questioning these stories?