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 The fashionable, well-fitting 1960s dress in the Hendricks painting has been replaced by a less glamorous and ill-fitting, uniform-like outfit, which further adds to the deliberate awkwardness of Beckford’s depiction.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. Continue reading