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You Call That a Portrait?

Pushing the boundaries of the self-image at the Museum of African Diaspora's new exhibition. 

Soundsuit

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Putting on Sunday Manners

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Sapphire Under Cotton

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Colored TV

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This month, the Museum of the African Diaspora and SFMOMA present Portraits and Other Likenesses, an exhibit that plays with the idea of portraiture, featuring artists ranging from Sargent Johnson to Kara Walker. “Not all of the works in the exhibition are portraits in the tra ditional sense,” says SFMOMA curator Caitlin Haskell. Still, some of the works are pretty out there, so we asked for some insight into what, exactly, qualifies a piece as a portrait. May 8–Oct. 11 

Nick Cave: Soundsuit
“There are a lot of influences in Cave’s work: black Indians in New Orleans, the gelede dancers in Nigeria,” says LeFalle-Collins. “But the first suit he did was a result of the Rodney King beating. His response was to create a masquer- ade that allows him to move freely, unobstructed and unidentified. It’s a portrait of himself, but he’s masked.”

David Hammons: Putting on Sunday Manners
Hammons often works with casts of his—ahem—body. “So it’s a portrait of the artist,” says guest curator Lizetta LeFalle-Collins. “But it’s also a flipping off of sorts. ‘Sunday manners’ is a reference to the church and to getting dressed in your Sunday best.”

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Sapphire Under Cotton
Looks like a pretty straight-forward 20th-century portrait, right? Except that the subject is completely fictional. “With portraits came privilege,” says Haskell. “Privilege that, in the 20th century, would have been reserved for white males.”

Robert Colescott: Colored TV
“At first, it’s a pun,” Haskell explains, “a colored person watching a color TV. But then you see the workman’s boot, and it appears that the subject could be a transvestite—a man in women’s clothing.”

 

Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco

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