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In the age of Trump, the art on racism by African-American Kerry James Marshall seems absolutely vital

Kerry James Marshall was born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1955, grew up in Los Angeles and now lives in Chicago. In the scope of his 62 years, he has seen many changes across the span of the racially fraught country he documents in his artwork. Though his documentation has always been important and topical, right now, in a Trump-led United States, Marshall’s work seems absolutely vital. Marshall made headlines in the spring when his 1997 painting Past Times sold for US$21.1-million at Sotheby’s in New York, breaking the record for a living African-American artist; the buyer was revealed to be Sean (Diddy) Combs. Kerry James Marshall: Collected Works, at Vancouver’s Rennie Museum, draws attention to historic and contemporary racism in the United States and also asks the viewer to consider other aspects of the African-American experience.

Bob Rennie, a real estate marketer with a vast contemporary art collection who built his own museum to show work from his collection in rotating exhibitions, has collected work from more than 30 years of Marshall’s career, lending it to institutions all over the world, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and documenta 12. Now, Rennie’s collection of Marshall’s work is being shown together for the first time.

Kerry James Marshall's works at the Rennie Museum in Vancouver.

Blaine Campbell/Courtesy of the Rennie Museum

The exhibition deals with difficult historical issues, including the slave trade and lynching, as well as contemporary consequences – and potential resolutions. Marshall is exceedingly thoughtful and has much to say about the state of his country and the way through the systemic, historic racism that perpetuates everything from economic discrimination to sanctioned and brutal violence against black people.

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“The solution is not to change people’s minds,” Marshall said during a tour of the show, just ahead of its opening. “It’s to change the circumstances that make it possible for people to do stuff like that to you. It’s to break a cycle of dependency on the goodwill of people who may not like you. That’s the thing. As long as you’re depending on people liking you or treating you well, you will always be in a situation where you can be victimized like that. In real terms, that’s the thing that has to change.”

Kerry James Marshall: Collected Works opened at the Rennie Museum in June. Here we look at three stand-out pieces from the exhibition.

Heirlooms and Accessories, 2002

In an infamous photograph taken in Indiana in 1930, the bodies of two black men – Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith – are hanging from a tree after a lynching, while the white crowd below watches in a festive kind of atmosphere. In Heirlooms and Accessories, a triptych, Marshall zeroes in on a different spectator in each of three rhinestone-encrusted frames. They are all women, of different ages – the youngest on the left maybe 14 or 15, the woman in the middle frame perhaps the age of her mother, and the woman on the right having reached middle-age, perhaps a grandmother. Their portraits are blown up and set in lockets designed by Marshall, hanging on chains he bought at thrift stores. Relegated to a shadowy background is the rest of the original, horrifying photo.

It’s a glittery skewering of not just the act or the crowd – accessories to the crime – but a system that would allow such horror to be passed down from generation to generation, not only unchecked, but celebrated; a hideous heirloom. Marshall says the work addresses “the way in which the legacy of that kind of violence has led to or generated the kind of wealth that the nation was built on. And that the people who participated in these things inherited their wealth as a consequence of those kinds of actions.”

The work is infuriating; these women, who in a different context might appear well-bred and refined, don’t seem the least bit ashamed or upset – they in fact seem defiant, proud, even enjoying themselves on an evening out. This is a cultured nation? This is a civil society? The fact that it is most certainly not is crystal clear.

Wake, 2003-05

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Wake (2003-05)

Blaine Campbell/Courtesy of the Rennie Museum

In the centre of the show’s largest gallery is a growing installation about the history and legacy of the transatlantic slave trade. The Middle Passage was the in-between time, the middle of the journey where Africans (those who survived) experienced a transition from what they were to something they could not imagine becoming. The Middle Passage became emblematic of a loss of identity, the loss of connection, the loss of history. In art, James explains, this is often dealt with through images of the cargo hold where the Africans were inhumanely stuffed. “A lot of people use that as the emblem, but that doesn’t say anything about what happened later,” he says.

Marshall, on the contrary, has made a beautiful black sailboat model on a hard reflective surface, adorned by medallions featuring the faces of African-Americans, scanned from family photographs, high school yearbooks, and more famous images. The men and women are a mixture – some family (which is how the work began), some celebrated and accomplished (Malcolm X, Booker T. Washington), some unknown black people who led more everyday, ordinary, lives.

“What I’m focusing on with this piece is: Yes, there’s the transport by the boat, there’s the capture in the nets, there’s all of that stuff,” Marshall says. “But within that, there’s all this potential and possibility and this expansion that generations of people who now live in the United States and the West and Canada and places like that who come from that. And amongst the people who are in there, there’s brilliance and then there’s ordinariness.”

When Marshall first made this piece, there were about 300 medallions. It now has more than 1,100.

He says he wanted to make an artwork “that remains open to transformation in perpetuity.” Something he (and others) can keep adding to. “Because the history is always unfolding,” he says. “It never stops.”

Garden Party, 2004-13

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Garden Party (2004-13)

Tom VanEynde/Courtesy of the Rennie Museum

This large, colourful painting radiates strength and joy. In a garden – the backyard of the Chicago home where Marshall and his wife, the actor Cheryl Lynn Bruce, live – is a gathering of a group of women. Most of the women in the painting are based on real women in Marshall’s life, including Bruce, on the far left-hand side, leaning into the crowd. Others represented in the painting include actors, artists and other accomplished women. They are all women of colour; there are no white people in this painting.

There is one black man, separated from the women by a chain link fence. In the backyard next-door, he leans over the fence and looks out at the viewer, somewhat forlornly, as if to say: Why wasn’t I invited? Why can’t I be part of that? The women, engrossed in each other, do not appear to notice him.

Marshall is probably best known for his large-scale paintings in which he uses the visual language of classical artworks to document the African-American experience. The allusions to Impressionist paintings are evident, including a Monet-esque Water Lilies-type motif in the bird fountain and the loose brush strokes of the colourful flowers in the foreground.

Impressionist paintings, Marshall says, “are really attractive and pleasant pictures but … there are no black people in Impressionist paintings. There are no Asian people in Impressionist paintings. So this is a painting where all the people who would never appear in an Impressionist painting, they get to be in a painting that I make that’s like an Impressionist painting. And they get to do it while they’re having a nice little garden party.”

Marshall says in art, you rarely see black people at leisure, “because that’s not how people think of what black people are doing,” he says.

“I just wanted to make a picture that had that kind of atmosphere; it was just a pleasant scene – people enjoying themselves, enjoying their own company, enjoying each other’s company. I’m kind of working against the grain. Because I think it just seems too easy to always be representing trauma, tragedy, abjection, and I’ve made a commitment to avoid all those aspects of life in the work that I was doing because I don’t think we see enough of the other thing. And to figure out whether you can make really compelling pictures or engaging pictures that are not about somebody suffering.”

Kerry James Marshall: Collected Works is at The Rennie Museum in Vancouver until Nov. 3.

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