Painting Black Flesh into History

The first thing people do is pull out their phones or their cameras, without actually checking or asking first. So I feel like I’m on display. And it actually cheapens what I’ve been doing  because they’re not getting the real story…

David Ibata is a copyist at the National Gallery of Art. For 4 years he’s been attending the museum’s copyist program in which artists are permitted to illustrate classical works of art within the collection, an occupation not largely filled by Black artists. Museum Visitors are then able to witness as these works are redone. This experience is of course filled with awe of the artistic ability and its likeness to the original work of art, but David’s work is met with curiosity, confusion and contempt.

Exercising artistic license, he began to paint the figures with black flesh tones.

So what was happening was people were complaining to the guards… The security guards are black, they’re just statues. They see a guy like me and they’re like, “thank you.”

As we say in American Studies, “Lets unpack that.” The invisibility of African Americans as staff within the museum is not a new phenomenon, but the conversation is not complete without speaking to the large proportion of African Americans as security or in food services. Statues, that in this scenario, come to life in service to white patrons.

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A conversation over coffee––from art to museums, movies to black culture, gentrification to police brutality––collided into the crux of our discussion: the hyperspecialization of difference. With the coming of the new Smithsonian entity on the horizon, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, it is something to consider. Believe you me, I am waiting in excitement for the reveal of what I think will be an amazing contribution to black history and culture. However, we can’t ignore the fact that the need for such dedicated spaces is reconstitution of our place outside of the American story in some sense. It is to exist outside of the realms of “normalcy,” that the prefix “hyper” draws attention. Despite the good work being done to reassert the narratives of minorities, that of Native Indians, LGBTQ, disability and so forth, within these spaces as an appreciation simultaneously reaffirms their locality on the periphery. So when it comes to the work of David Ibata who merely dips his brush and with incredible ability, ‘reimagines’ classical paintings, he often confounds many of the guest. And I am apprehensive to use the term “reimagine” because in some sense he is making black bodies visible  which isn’t an untruth although it’s often accompanied by a suspension of belief. It would be akin to having a black James Bond or the backlash that came with the latest version of “Annie” starring Quvenzhané Wallis. The ways in which black folk, and other marginalized groups, are expected without question to be able to relate to the mainstream, but films with majority black actors and actresses, for example, become niche; ineligible to wider audiences and incapable of relating to broader experiences.

David and I discussed the above image in detail, and I don’t think there is a better scene of what is the simultaneous erasure and disruption that is black skin. David, despite being at the forefront of the photo, is not the focus. And the high contrast of the photo renders him almost invisible. As he marks one of the figures in the painting with black skin, an onlooker, a white female, observes the painting in utter bafflement. Meanwhile, a rendition of the biblical tale of Daniel in the lions den ironically gestures to them both in the background. Never mind that Daniel, a story set in Africa despite how media chooses to depict Egypt (re: the film “Exodus: Gods and Kings”), is unquestionably  illustrated as white. Thankfully, David has been able to have what I like to call “teachable” moments, in which there are people who engage with his work, find inspiration and open themselves up to the possibilities of blackness.

After Eric Gardner died. After Mike Brown Died. I kept thinking to myself how is the museum going to respond to that. Nobody did anything…

Going to art shows was like business as usual. We’re at war right now, so painting the black skin was a way to exorcise the demons.

All of these frustrations, negotiations, and tensions, illuminate through the black flesh tones in David Ibata’s work. Don’t ask why he’s painting them black but begin to wonder why they weren’t there before. Consider what it means to be surrounded by whiteness and then be asked to reconfigure them as they are with so many options to do so. To rarely have the opportunity to paint blackness as royalty and in dignity, and not because they did not exist but that history is told by the winners. That to just imagine them in the narrative is a disruption of time.

There was a moment in the midst of our discussion in which David and I spoke about time-travel, the ways in which art galleries especially beckon us to imagine a different time period. It is a moment I am sure we each have had; to want to time hop to another era just to see what it was like. But our imaginations were halted by the realization of comedian Louis CK’s words.

“Black folk can’t f–– with time.”

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2 responses to “Painting Black Flesh into History”

  1. Kathleen Hutton says:

    This is such powerful positive and beautiful action–I hope it spreads. I am eager to observe Mr. Ibata at work in the NGA– and I would love to engage with any fellow visitors (and the museum guards) to talk about all the fresh thinking that his paintings inspire. I’m starving for real discussion through art relevant to critical issues of our time.

  2. […] display. A copyist is a person that holds a licence to paint in museums and galleries. I found this story in a blog called “Brown Girls Museum Blog” and by the looks of the images, integrated […]

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