Dressed in dashing clothes, in front of bright backgrounds, Amy Sherald’s subjects gaze thoughtfully at us.
Sherald acquired worldwide fame after painting former First Lady Michelle Obama in 2018. However, she made the choice of exclusively painting Black people a long time ago. During a school trip to the Columbus Museum in her hometown of Columbus, Georgia, Sherald was drawn to a painting of a Black man by Bo Bartlett, “At the time, I was in an all-white school, and I saw this man, and I was like, ‘Wow, he looks like me,’” she said.
Although her parents were hoping for a future in medicine, Sherald eventually changed her major from pre-med to art at Clark Atlanta University, and then went on to receive an MFA in painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Still searching for her own voice, Sherald came upon a set of photographs that American writer W.E.B. Du Bois presented at the 1900 Paris Exposition. These pictures, ranging from individual and family portraits to photographs of schools and Black-owned businesses, were meant to oppose racist stereotypes.
“I wanted to emulate the quiet presence I saw in those pictures, which were some of the first images where Blacks were able to present themselves the way they wanted to be seen. Painting images that look like that was really important, not just for ourselves, but for the rest of the world to see us that way, too,” Sherald explained.
In an effort to encourage Reduced Inequalities, one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, painting portraits of Black people doing ordinary things has been Sherald’s focus for the past decade, using grayscale to depict skin tone as her signature style. A practical choice at first — suggested as a way to speed up the creative process — using shades of gray instead of the actual skin color later became intentional. “I’m not trying to take race out of the work, I was just trying to figure out a way to not make it the most salient thing about it,” Sherald declared.
After winning the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition in 2016 for Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance) — becoming the first African American to win it — Sherald earned a notoriety which, just one year later, landed her her most important commission yet: the official portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama for the National Portrait Gallery. Alongside Kehinde Wiley, who painted former President Barack Obama, the pair became the first Black painters to be selected for this honour.
In the summer of 2020, Sherald again received a commission of great political importance. At the request of author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, guest editor for the September edition of Vanity Fair, Sherald produced a painting of Breonna Taylor that would be used as the cover. Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old medical worker, was killed by the police inside her own home in Louisville, Kentucky in March 2020. Her unjust, racially motivated murder sparked many protests throughout the United States.
After studying photos and having several interviews with Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, Sherald chose to paint Taylor standing confidently in a turquoise dress. Soon after, the painting was jointly acquired by the Smithsonian and the Speed Art Museum, and then exhibited in the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “This painting and exhibition embody the idea of art for justice and demonstrate the potential power of art to heal,” declared Darren Walker, the president of Ford Foundation, who contributed to the purchase price.
Although awards and professional recognition haven’t stopped coming her way for the past decade, Sherald has certainly gone through more than her share of hardships. In 2000, her father died from Parkinson’s, and in 2012 she lost her brother to lung cancer. Diagnosed with congestive heart failure at 30, Sherald was the recipient of a heart transplant at 39 when doctors discovered her heart was working at 5 percent.
After that second chance at life, the work of Amy Sherald definitely feels like a celebration to the joy of living. “My work doesn’t commit Black life to grief. There’s an assumption of a whole Black life being inextricably tied to struggle. I think it becomes all-consuming and really can codify our existence and our whole experience,” Sherald stated.
In the end, Amy Sherald’s portraits convey a simple request, not for praise or compassion, but for what all people deserve — acknowledgement.
Find out more about Amy Sherald’s work on her website.