There has been quite a bit of discussion about the similarity of Kimani Beckford’s B.I.B., a large painting on view in the Jamaica Biennial 2014, and Barkley Hendricks’ Lawdy Mama (1969) in the collection of the Studio Museum in Harlem, and some have suggested that Beckford’s painting is overly derivative of the latter. The resemblance between the two works is beyond obvious, and clearly deliberate, but there are also significant differences.
While Hendricks’ realistically painted portrait represents a lanky, brown-skinned young woman with a large Afro who gazes at the viewer with stern confidence, Beckford’s subject is so dark-skinned that her features are practically invisible, except for the schematic eyes. Beckford’s painting is in actuality not a portrait at all but represents a more abstract “type” and reminds more of the “hyper-black” images of contemporary African-American artist Kerry James Marshall than of Barkley Hendricks’ portrait. The flattened, largely undefined features of Beckford’s figure transition almost seamlessly into the equally flat black halo/hair background and the woman also seems younger, shorter and less confident than Hendricks’ subject – an awkward young girl rather than a self-assured young woman. The fashionable, well-fitting 1960s dress in the Hendricks painting has been replaced by a less glamorous and ill-fitting, uniform-like outfit, which further adds to the deliberate awkwardness of Beckford’s depiction. And while Hendricks’ portrait is about life-size, Beckford’s is significantly larger, which gives the figure a more imposing and enigmatic presence.
Barkley Hendricks’ Lawdy Mama is representative of how black artists in the late 1960s and early 1970s challenged dominant, white representational codes by interpreting traditional iconographies in ways that made them assertively black – in fact, it is one of the icons of the Black Power era and makes a compelling Black is Beautiful statement. Lawdy Mama draws on a long history of Christian icons, particularly representations of Mary, which is alluded to by the halo-like hair and the gold background. The Jamaican artist Osmond Watson’s Rastafarian Christ in Peace and Love, which was also painted in 1969, is another example, albeit one with more explicit religious content. Such works not only make reference to traditional Christian imagery but also to the pop culture representations of blackness that were being articulated at that time. It is often assumed that Lawdy Mama is a portrait of the activist Angela Davis, whose trademark Afro had helped to legitimize and politicize natural black hairstyles, but it is actuality a portrait of Barkley’s cousin Kathy (and the title of the work comes from a Blues song that has appeared in many incarnations). Osmond Watson drew from the emerging visual culture of Rastafari and, particularly, its engagement with Ethiopian icon painting traditions. That Watson’s Peace and Love is also a self-portrait makes it an even more powerful endorsement of Rastafarian ideology as a positive social force at a time when the movement was still very controversial in Jamaican society and deemed violent and disruptive by the ruling classes. Both paintings are part of a complex economy of images, derived from art history and pop culture alike, and navigate that economy with deliberate and provocative political intent.
Painted forty-five years later, Kimani Beckford’s B.I.B. – of course short for Black is Beautiful – is no less intentional. Beckford has stated that the painting pays homage to Barkley Hendricks and his B.I.B. is best understood as a response to, and not a simple copy or derivative of Lawdy Mama (although it would have been wise for Beckford to acknowledge his source in the title). By replacing Hendricks’ brown-skinned cousin with an anonymous black-skinned woman, Beckford reveals the unacknowledged colour hierarchies that have persisted even within the Black is Beautiful movement and also speaks to the issues of social visibility and invisibility that accompany those hierarchies. While Hendricks makes a confident, racially assertive statement, Beckford is more tentative and questioning: he seems to imply that what the civil rights and racial pride activists of the 1960s were agitating for have not (yet) been achieved and that resolving this unfinished project also requires acknowledging and addressing its internal contradictions. Viewed in this light, Beckford’s work certainly deserves the positive response it has received, which has included him being the co-winner of the inaugural Dawn Scott Memorial Award, jointly with Camille Chedda.
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“Good artists copy, great artists steal” is a quote which has often been attributed to Picasso albeit probably erroneously. Regardless of whether Picasso actually said it, the quote reminds that most, if not all art exists in dialogue with other art, whether passively or actively. Throughout history and across cultures, existing art works have set the parameters for new works of art to be created and received, whether this means that those standards are endorsed and adopted or resisted and challenged. Current ideas about originality and the ownership of images are furthermore of recent vintage and are generally speaking a product of Western capitalism, since “copying” and “stealing” threatens art that derives much of its market value from its perceived originality. This has significantly complicated these dialogues, especially since the development of photography and, more recently, of digital technologies and the internet has caused images to circulate more widely and intensively than ever before. At the same time, modern and contemporary art is characterized by greater self-reflexivity about definitions and histories of art and its relation to broader visual culture, to the point where all art is now at least to some extent “art about art.”
This self-reflexivity in modern and contemporary art has been highly politicized. The politics of representation have certainly been a major debate in postcolonial Caribbean and African American art, which has evolved in a complex and at times very fraught but also fertile dialogue with the dominant Western canon and its socio-political implications. This has often involved specific references and reinterpretations, as is illustrated by Barkley Hendricks’ Lawdy Mama and Osmond Watson’s Peace and Love and Kimani Beckford’s B.I.B. alike. While the latter may be the most explicit example in the Biennial, there are many other works in the exhibition that illustrate the same dynamic. Richard Mark Rawlins’ Finding Black, for instance, references actual and made up pop culture representations of blackness from the 20th and 21st century and explores how blackness has been defined and redefined in the process. And Greg Bailey’s Boasy Slave, to cite another example, subverts a long tradition of formal portraiture of members of the Western ruling elites in which black subjects were typically marginalized and subordinated or omitted altogether. That most of these examples focus on race should come as no surprise in the post-Ferguson, post-Tivoli era, where the politics of race and class have been placed back on the front burner of the cultural discourse, and it is in fact perhaps the main emerging theme in the Biennial.