What does the word “supermodel” evoke? In today’s world, it might conjure images of glossy magazine covers and runways populated by people who are—predominantly—tall, thin, white, and female. Titled Supermodel, this painting by Kerry James Marshall defies these stereotypes.
The young man lifts his shirt, revealing—maybe even flaunting—his physique. The white of the fabric contrasts starkly with his skin, depicted by Marshall with an absolute blackness that’s uncompromising. Marshall has said that he paints with carbon black, mars black, and ivory black, adding other hues to extend his palette—but not a single drop of white pigment is ever mixed in.
Marshall’s art strategically inserts Black figures into recognizable archetypes from art history and pop culture that have historically excluded them. In the case of Supermodel, it’s particularly poignant to consider the lack of African American representation in fashion. Five decades have passed since Donyale Luna made history as the first Black model to appear on the cover of British Vogue in 1966, followed by Beverly Johnson on the cover of the American edition eight years later. Still, the mission for equal opportunity and representation continues today, one ad campaign or magazine cover at a time.
For Marshall, the mission continues one canvas at a time. Supermodel is just one example of his celebration of African American culture through the presence of Black figures that are “self-satisfied,” as he calls them. Many more can be seen in his retrospective “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Rather than typecasting Black experience, Marshall diligently expands the representation of Black individuals in art history. “My work is not an argument against anything; it is an argument for something else,” he says. His art challenges us to reconsider preconceived assumptions of links between appearance and identity, as well as to celebrate the beauty in our individuality.
Above: Kerry James Marshall, Supermodel, 1994. Acrylic and mixed media on board. The John Axelrod Collection—Frank B. Bemis Fund, Charles H. Bayley Fund, and The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection. Courtesy of the artist & Jack Shainman Gallery, NY. 2011.1825
Olga Khvan is content editor in Public Relations.