An artist turning an eye on oneself is very rare.
Self-portraits and portraits of artists by artists is the theme of a new exhibition “Portraits of Who We Are” at the David Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, running until May 18.
The works of art go beyond a face or body portrayal. Audiences see how artists interact with their community and their culture, with many of the portraits having a clear commentary.
The exhibition includes more than 50 works spanning from 1915 to 2017. It was curated by Curlee R. Holton, a professor and Driskell Center executive director, assisted by Dorit Yaron, the Center’s deputy director, and adviser Michael D. Harris, associate professor of art history in the Department of African American Studies at Emory University in Georgia.
“We put together a show about constructed identity, especially as it relates to people of color,” Holton said. “We can have a dialog about how identities are constructed with notions of aesthetics, beauty and how we project that into the world. The idea of artists commenting on other artists means they would bring a certain kind of sensitivity to the portrayal, as well.”
D.C. native Arcmanoro Niles has a self-portrait “To Be Kings” in this exhibition. The oil-and-acrylic painting is part of a series where Niles explores his upbringing, his time with friends and what motivated their decisions. He has been in seven group exhibitions and mounted three solo shows, but said he is still growing in his craft.
“Every time a do a group of paintings, I think I get closer to how I picture things,” said the Duke Ellington School of the Arts alumnus. “I get excited for the next one. I did not know it could be a career.”
Artist Patrick Earl Hammie has two giant self-portraits in the exhibition from a series he began in 2007. Titled “Equivalent Exchange,” the series was prompted by the realities of then-Sen. Barack Obama becoming the first U.S. president of color.
The first portrait shows Hammie on a stool with his back facing the audience. The second portrait, “Intention,” has him facing the viewer. The message being conveyed is of a Black man making a choice to be an active participant in the process.
“It forced me to think through my own identity as a Black man,” said Hammie, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “I wanted to reconcile the real visual legacy of trying to understand myself from the enslaved Black man on the auction block to the authoritative pose of Barack Obama on the presidential election.”
Center namesake David Driskell, a foremost authority on visual arts and culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora, offered encouragement at the opening of “Portraits of Who We Are.”
“I have been able to see that we are making progress, but we still have not reached the promised land,” Driskell told the younger artists participating in the exhibition. “It will be up to those here today to carry on the tradition to say in the words of Langston Hughes, ‘I too sing, America.’”