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Finding Humanity in Shades of Gray: The Work of Amy Sherald

Christina Beatty

Born in Columbus, Georgia, Amy Sherald’s southern upbringing strongly influences her work. But ultimately Baltimore, with its roughly 60 percent African-American population, would provide the backdrop for Sherald to hone the artistic point of view that would land her the Boochever Portrait Competition Grand Prize and the commission to paint former First Lady Michelle Obama for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

Inspired by historic daguerreotype portraits, Sherald starts by photographing everyday subjects she meets on the street. In the studio, she translates these images into large-scale paintings, stripping skin color down to grayscale juxtaposed against vivid apparel, adornments, and saturated fields of background color. In each piece, the viewer is met by a subject’s gaze, and without the signifier of brown skin, invited to both consider race and see past it. Sherald often titles her portraits with words borrowed from literary giants like Lucille Clifton, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alice Walker that articulate the specific humanity she sees in each muse.  

In 1994, Mark Dery coined the term Afrofuturism in his essay “Black to the Future” asking “Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?” Sherald dares to insist the answer is yes. Her portraits elevate each subject to archetypal significance referencing the past while inserting new images into the canon for today and tomorrow.  

Amy Sherald is on view at Crystal Bridges in Bentonville through December 31, 2018.

Amy Sherald, She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she new how not to mix them, 2018, oil on canvas

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