‘It Came Down to What I Could Make at My Kitchen Table’: Amy Sherald on Experimenting With a New Medium for the First Time in Decades

On October 19th, Hauser and Wirth gallery will present a series of five new paintings by artist Amy Sherald in an online exhibition titled “Womanist is to Feminist as Purple is to Lavender.” The title draws from a phrase attributed to Alice Walker and her exploration of “womanist” ideology, which accounted for the intersectional experiences of Black women left out of established feminism, in the anthology titled In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, from 1983.

In these new paintings, Sherald conducts an examination of identity analogous to Walker’s, experimenting with new materials and themes that celebrate femininity, self-awareness, and leisure through the prism of Blackness. In doing so, the artist reveals expressions of Black life that have been historically absent in Black imagery. She presents simple acts of leisure that are not luxuries of privilege or passive pursuits, but essential elements of wellness that remind us of the restorative power of joy.

Amy Sherald approaches social portraiture with an intentionality that is expressed in the unique characteristics of her paintings. Her grey skin tones have become abstractions of blackness that reject social stratifications that underlie racism and colorism. Sherald paints her subjects on solid color backgrounds that accentuate the contrasting shades of their clothing and the lush texture of their natural coifs. Her intentionality extends to the visual parity the artist creates in the leveled gaze between the subject and viewer, asserting her subject’s rightful place in the pantheon of portraiture.

Taken together, these artistic devices subvert narrow social constructs around blackness while maintain the essence of its beauty. Her work has earned her the critical and popular acclaim that led to her 2018 portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama in the National Portrait Gallery and, most recently, a commission for a portrait of Breonna Taylor featured that became Vanity Fair‘s September cover. Hauser and Wirth’s online exhibition precedes a new solo presentation of Amy Sherald’s work set for February 2021 at Hauser and Wirth in Los Angeles.

Recently, Sherald took precious time out of her schedule to reflect on the new work, Breonna Taylor, caregiving, and creating art during the global pandemic with Artnet News contributor Colony Little.

Amy Sherald, Untitled(Detail) (2020). © Amy SheraldCourtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Amy Sherald, Untitled (Detail) (2020). © Amy Sherald, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

The title of this exhibition, “Womanist is to Feminist as Purple is to Lavender” is a nod to Alice Walker’s famous exploration of womanist theory. How did this quote inform your latest series? There are multiple nuanced interpretations of womanist ideology. What does womanism mean to you as a Black woman and an artist?

I was thinking about a title for this show and I came across it after the work was finished. It’s rare that I go into the studio responding to words or with words in my head. But when I am finished with the work, I like to read poetry and books that connect organically to the themes I’m exploring. I extract phrases or piece together different sentences from various readings.

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