WORDS Erica Ciccarone
For centuries, women’s portraits that made it into the Western canon gave the subjects little agency. A stroll through any large museum shows nude women in postures either subservient or exalted to goddess-like status. The art world was shocked by Manet’s Olympia. The subject of the painting, likely a prostitute, shocked viewers with her confrontational gaze. The portrait went against the grain of social mores involving women and sex. Rather than being the object of the viewer’s gaze, she stared back with a sense of self-possession and sexual authority. But to her right, in shadow, a black maid presented an enormous floral bouquet. As much as white women had it bad in portraiture, women of color had it way worse.
With contemporary giants like Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, and Mickalene Thomas working in portraiture, a new day has dawned on the walls of collectors and museums around the world. Portraiture has become a means of understanding our present by making sense of our past. After winning a MacArthur “genius award” fellowship, Weems described her work in the New York Times: “The work has to do with an attempt to reposition and reimagine the possibility of women and the possibility of people of color, and to that extent it has to do with what I always call unrequited love.”
Nashville Arts spoke to three local artists working in the genre today.
LAKESHA MOORE is interested in how we form and carry memories. Each of us has an individual history, but we share a collective history as well. She says that tapping into each other’s memories can create opportunities for bonding that reveal our potential. This aspirational spirit comes through in her paintings. Moore chooses subjects that are both still and lively: Fruits, flowers, and people might coexist in nearly equal proportions within the frame. Using a warm palette, she renders everyday people and objects with reverence. Moore is a professor of art education at Tennessee State University, and she features her female students in portraiture.
Where does your interest in portraiture come from?
For some it may feel outdated, but the way you approach it can make it relevant. It started developing in undergrad when I painted portraits of my brothers. I’m the oldest and felt like I was on the outside looking in … I was talking about youth and innocence. In grad school, I was pulled away from using a direct portrait and began to allow the spaces to represent portraits of people. They acted as memorials, spaces of meditation. I used elements of nature to stand in. You think about nature and the strength and resilience you can find there. It’s reflected in humanity as well. We have strength, but there’s also fragility about us. Finding that balance and trying to describe that balance is what I was doing.
What stories are you telling?
I still find myself talking about youth. I’m working primarily with college students. They have an energy, a thirst. There’s a vibrancy and the hope that they have for where they’re going that I want to capture. Students I talk to are dealing with a lot of things outside of school … Their stories become a way to bolster and strengthen in spite of. The simplicity of their faces, that image, their gaze. They’re not always looking at you … You don’t have to know everything about a person to see their essence. We try to define each other in these very strict ways, and that’s what I’ve been learning from my students. Sometimes, it’s OK not to know. We need that freedom to understand who we are and not be confined by what others expect us to be.
When you paint others, do you find yourself in the portraits as well?
I find myself in their journeys, so I can relate to them. Being a black female in art, I don’t claim to make “black art.” I make art that speaks to a broad audience, but because I’m walking in this flesh, I have a certain experience. I want to reflect that experience. These young women show that, and I appreciate their journey. That’s what we have. We have ourselves. We have each other. We need to support that. Learn more at www.lakeshasmoore.com.
EVA YOUNG wants us to look at her. The 21-year-old artist creates photographic self-portraits in the style of Frida Kahlo, but with an Afrofuturistic bent. In other works, she dresses models in the clothing she imagines her ancestors wearing, a practice that speaks to the fact that Westerners of African ancestry often cannot trace their family tree beyond the diaspora. Young is without pretention, listing Nick Cave and Kerry James Marshall as influences right alongside Solange and Hannah Montana. For Young, the photographic portrait is a way to control how she and her people are represented.
When did you start to think of yourself as an artist?
I think because I am so self-critical, I was afraid of giving myself that title at first. I remember someone told me there’s a difference between being a creator and an artist. Everyone can create, but artists tell a story.
What story are you telling?
Because I come from an identity with so many layers of politics in it, as a queer femme-identifying person, a lot of the art my community creates is still representing the weight we go through. Just recently we started learning to be political but expressing it in a very beautiful way––not as heavy. The black body in general is political, so I use that as a tool to create more fantasies for us to see.
Your self-portraits remind me of Frida Kahlo because there’s so much self-love in them. I think women in my generation really struggle with that.
It was so natural, actually. I have a great support group in friends and family. It’s so normal to take pictures of yourself in this age. My generation is used to documenting ourselves, and I think that’s why it was so comfortable to do.
What’s your composition process?
These are outfits I wear on a regular day. I think the process of getting ready every day is a performance and art piece, like getting ready for a ceremony. It’s putting on armor to protect yourself, but it’s also a way to receive a lot of negative or good energy.
What’s coming up for you?
I’m creating a tribe called Meta, and it’s a representation of my black identity, specifically as a queer-identifying person. This whole series is me giving a story to the ancestors that I never knew about. Giving them a story is giving back power that was taken from them. I’ve been creating all these clothes that would represent what they would look like and getting friends that would represent the collective. Black people and queer people are never viewed as a collective. We’re viewed as a mass. Putting a name and identity to that gives me all the power back.
What about the arts in Nashville is exciting for you?
It’s a great place to start evolving into showing the different aspects of creatives and artists. There are a lot of weirdos here, and this is a time when they’re getting exposed. That’s a good thing. Learn more at @raeyoyoung on Instagram.
MICHEALA INTVELD-SUTHERLIN’s work reflects the world around her through dreamlike prisms. In her colored- pencil portraits, she pulls rich color from the faces of her models, sometimes using heavily saturated hues of blue and purple to stand in for black and brown skin tones. The resulting portraits convey strength and resolve. In a recent series, Intveld-Sutherlin draws from her own experience to explore the cultural place of women’s hair. In one charcoal print, an adult hand pulls a comb through the coarse hair of a young girl. Her face is out of the frame, but the tension is evident, revealing the sometimes-fraught relationship between generations that can be played out in grooming.
Intveld-Sutherlin is a senior at Fisk University, and in addition to her artistic practice, she’s a communications intern at the university and the president of Tanner Arts Society, the oldest organization on campus. She’s also a capable graphic designer with a growing portfolio.
“Someone told me there’s a difference between being a creator and an artist. Everyone can create, but artists tell a story.”
How do you choose your models?
Especially because I’ve been doing work in school, my images are what I see on social media or what kind of musicians I like. Lately, I’m doing more of my friends and asking them to be models, which gives me more control over the image. It’s becoming more personal.
Why is this more personal?
I gravitate toward portraiture because I’m very interested in human emotions and how they’re expressed through body language and expressions. It’s interesting to see this in my friends because I know them so well. I can take a look at a face and know how they’re feeling.
There’s something about the colors and shading you use that reminds me of the film Moonlight. Director Barry Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton have earned praise for their use of light to make black skin almost shimmer. How does light factor into your portraits?
Light is very important, especially when I’m looking for random images to practice on and grow from . . . I like a lot of contrast. It’s found in my color choices. My dad is an artist, and when he gives me a critique, he asks, “Does it pop?” I try to emphasize shadow.
I feel like a lot of portraiture has narrative. What stories are you telling through your work?
I agree that there are stories in portraiture. I think some are very open to interpretation. In some of my [recent] work, they tell a story about growing up with black hair . . . Those three are titled based on things I was told when I was little. The first that I did is Big Girls Don’t Cry. If you would touch the brush, I would cry.
What’s your relationship like with your hair?
I used to hate my hair, actually. I was always a frizz ball. No one knew what to do with my hair. My mom is white, so she wasn’t used to it. To the black side of my family, my hair didn’t cooperate. I damaged it in trying to straighten it. In college, I decided to stop using heat. I said, my hair is going to be healthy, and I will love it for what it is.” Now my hair is part of me. Learn more at www.drawnlovely.com.