30 Americans Thematic Trail: Art and Portraits

Portraiture is a major device used by artists in 30 Americans, including for commemoration and as a symbol of freedom.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, for example, painted Bird on Money (1981) in honor of the jazz musician Charlie Parker. Basquiat’s portrait of Parker is not a realistic image, but its symbols and abstract marks make the painting just as powerful, and perhaps more personal. The bird symbolizes Parker’s nickname, while the zigzag marks and brushstrokes represent the improvisation in jazz music.

Carrie Mae Weems alters portrait photographs to commemorate slaves whose images served as scientific specimens, as a “type” or category of a species, or as stereotypes. Kerry James Marshall uses portraiture as a memorial in his Souvenir: Composition in Three Parts (1998–2000): in reference to a bombing of a church during the civil rights era, he incorporates objects such as a bouquet, cross, and photograph to represent the victims.

Younger artists, though influenced by their predecessors, appear to have moved away from depicting known figures or addressing historical events in their work to elevating everyday people through portraiture. Nina Chanel Abney gives us Khaaliqua & Jeff (2007); Mickalene Thomas, Portraits of Quanikah (2006). And Kehinde Wiley takes his models from the street, placing them within the context of famous works of art.

Discussion Prompt:

  • If you could have any of these artists make a portrait of you, who would you choose and why? What might the portrait look like, and what materials or objects might be used? Would it be symbolic, like Basquiat’s portrait of Charlie Parker, or more representational, like Nina Chanel Abney’s work?