Race: painters and the people they paint

This post includes very simplistic terminology in regard to race and ethnicity (“black”, “white”, “non-white”). These categories are problematic to be sure, but for now they seem to be the simplest way for me to talk broadly about the topic of race (another troublesome word) in connection to contemporary figurative paintings, and the painters who paint them.

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1601?? Black Profile (2016) oil on paper 24 x 18.7cm

When I began this painting I was imagining my own profile in silhouette. Then I saw that it looked more like a black man, and I completed it that way. I like it. However, as a white man, I feel self-conscious about painting an image of a non-white person.

Painting is different from photography. Photographic portraits are sometimes misleading, but they are at least a document of a real person at a given moment, and often that person has some control over how they present themselves. In painting, it’s possible to depict any type of person in any way, with no collaboration involved. That freedom comes with responsibility. If an image of a person is taken to represent a larger group then all sorts of messages can be interpreted and attributed to the painter. For white painters, there are difficult questions in regard to the complex and troubled history of white representations of non-white people. Thinking about this made me consider contemporary figurative painting in terms of how painters represent themselves and other people.

Out of curiosity, I’ve made a superficial and completely unscientific study of who is painting who in contemporary art. My sources are two survey books:

100+ painters surveyed in Painting Today (“The definitive guide to the last 40 years of international contemporary painting”) (2009);

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And 115 painters surveyed in Vitamin P2: New Perspectives in Painting (2011).

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(The ethnicity of the authors, editors and publishers of these books is a whole other question, also the gallerists, collectors, critics, etc)

The paintings in these books contain a lot of images of people. Some of them aren’t identifiable as any particular race, ethnicity or nationality (ie. because they’re green, have no face, etc.). Putting those aside, I counted approximately 794 images of people who I felt could be grouped, by appearance, into three very broad and imperfect categories: white, black, and Asian.

Of that total:

67% were images of white people painted by white artists
18% were images of Asian people painted by Asian artists
9% were images of black people painted by black artists

3% were images of white people painted by black artists
2% were images of black people painted by white artists
1% were other combinations

What’s striking to me is that 95% of this sample are made up of artists painting people of their own ethnicity. Of course, they’re entitled to paint whatever they want, but I can’t help feeling a little sad that among these painters, collectively, there seems to be very little interest in painting people who are racially or ethnically different to themselves. Many of them are based in multi-cultural cities with diverse populations, but this isn’t reflected in their pictures. How come?

It also becomes evident that, proportionately, the black painters are ten times more likely to paint white people than the white painters are to paint black people. Why?

Other questions:
Do painters not feel entitled or able to create images (or “representations”) of people whose race or ethnicity is different to their own?
Do we have a special interest in painting people of our own ethnicity?
When we paint people who look similar to our own colour, race, or ethnicity, are we in some way making self-portraits? What does that say about the way we see our selves in relation to others, and Others?
When we look at figurative painting, what role does “race” play in the way we think about the people we’re looking at (or the person who painted them)?

While collecting the data for my “study”, there were a few paintings that defied categorisation in interesting ways. Nina Chanel Abney’s figures appear to be composed of mismatched parts: a white body with a black head; a black face with a white nose and mouth. This could be a depiction of the skin condition vitiligo, but seems more like a deliberate strategy to derail assumptions about the people and scenarios that Abney is presenting. Gender signifiers are also scrambled.

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Nina Chanel Abney Beauty in the Beast (2009) acrylic on canvas 139 x 169.5cm

Most of the figures in Khalif Kelly’s paintings are identifiably African-American, but in some paintings the candy-colours he uses are so far from any human skin tone or hair colour that I find myself unsure whether I’m interpreting the ethnicity of the figures based on their appearance, or on my knowledge of other works by Kelly, or on the fact that Kelly himself is African-American.

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Khalif Kelly Threshold (2009) oil on canvas 198 x 228.5cm

All the thoughts and questions in this post are open-ended. I’ll be returning to this subject for sure.

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