Kerry James Marshall exhibition lands at M HKA

Summary

The Kerry James Marshall exhibition Painting and Other Stuff is the most exhaustive retrospective of the artist ever to come to Europe.

Marshall exhibition at M HKA focuses on social emancipation

The politically powerful work of acclaimed Chicago-based artist Kerry James Marshall rings confrontational on different levels. His focus on other African-Americans – portrayed both in everyday scenes and as comic book heroes in an attempt to denounce white power – at times puts his primarily white M HKA audience in Antwerp in an awkward position.

Flemish visitors are used to art that represents people who look like them. But the black and brown faces on Marshall’s canvasses remind us that our art history is and has always been “coloured” by a Western perspective. After this historical marginalisation, Marshall wants to fill the “lack in the image bank” – not only to give the black community its due place, but also to claim an identity for himself in the predominantly white contemporary art scene.

As a child, Marshall always liked to draw. But growing up in a black neighbourhood in Birmingham, Alabama, it wasn’t easy to find role models. So Marshall learned about Western painters in the library, and cut out images from books and magazines as reference materials. Going to college in Los Angeles, he was the only African American student in his painting class.

The installation “Baobab Ensemble”, an improvised sitting area around crates, discarded materials and video screens, reveals his work method. Just like underneath the baobab tree, you can have a seat here and peek inside the plastic folders with his “Image Bank” pictures.

It’s just one of the five themes of Painting and Other Stuff, which is the most exhaustive Marshall retrospective ever to come to Europe. In addition to paintings, photographs, videos and sculptures are also on view in exhibition sections like “Readdressing Art History”, “Notions of Beauty”, “Commemoration” and “The Everyday”.

African mythology

Social emancipation runs as a recurring theme throughout the exhibition. A series of enormous ink-stamps, “Mementos” (pictured) carries Black Power slogan prints, while “Rythm Mastr” offers a comic-book superhero series inspired by African mythology. But the most striking images are those that don’t require much explanation, rooted as they are in feelings that we all share – like love and a desire for beauty.

This outstanding exhibition is the result of a major collaboration between several European museums, and it will later travel to Copenhagen, Barcelona and Madrid.