National Gallery Exhibition Marks Artist Kerry James Marshall's First D.C. Solo Show

Eve M. Ferguson | 8/28/2013, 3 p.m.
Artist Kerry James Marshall transformed his obsession with the Middle Passage into a body of artwork.
Plunge, 1992. Gerri and Mason Haupt.

When I lived in Miami Beach a decade ago, I would often sit on the shores and ponder how many of my ancestors’ bones lay on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Artist Kerry James Marshall went beyond mere thought, and transformed his obsession with the Middle Passage into a body of artwork.

“In The Tower: Kerry James Marshall,” at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building, displays 10 of the artist’s large scale paintings and more than 20 works on paper – studies for the larger works – and fully illustrates the artist’s preoccupation with the Middle Passage, that portion of the Atlantic Slave Trade that brought captured Africans to the New World.

Inspired by the purchase of Marshall’s 1994 painting, Great America, the National Gallery of Art exhibit is the sixth in a series of installations in the airy Tower galleries, intended to showcase artistic developments since the midcentury. It also marks Marshall’s first solo exhibit in the Nation’s Capital.

Looking unassuming in a gray T-shirt and jeans, Marshall, who was born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1955, explained the rich imagery that permeates his colorful, large canvases. To many viewers, his works may appear as brightly hued amalgams of images, figures and symbols. But, as the Chicago resident explained, none are that simple.

“My work starts with the implications of the slave trade and how the things they came with became important,” Marshall said. He continued with a mini-history lesson as a primer to understanding his works, which usually include symbols both familiar and multifaceted. The recurring theme of water – the vehicle which brought Africans to this country, is omnipresent in several pieces.

“There are manifestations of African religious practices even in the United States,” Marshall noted. “Santeria and Candomblė are imbedded in Christianity. The pantheon of gods and deities mirror Greek mythology,” he said, as he alluded to the first painting in the exhibit Baptist (1992) depicting a black figure treading water in the ocean between Africa and North America. The painting introduces viewers to the lexicon of symbols Marshall inserts into his works, representing the complexities of the history of African Americans.

A white flag with a red cross, repeated in several other paintings, can be seen on the surface as representing the Red Cross, a symbol of help globally. But, as Marshall points out, “The Red Cross is rescue and aid, but it is also a symbol of Eshu (a Yoruba deity) whose color is red and is represented by the crossroads.”

The red cross imagery appears again in Plunge (1992), where a woman appears to be taking a dive into a swimming pool, which is identified as the Atlantic Ocean. In the idyllic poolside setting with striped umbrellas, a white picket fence is marked “Private,” leaving the viewer to wonder whether the black female swimmer is being locked out. A toy boat floats in the water, topped with Haitian “Vévé” symbols, which allude to certain rituals and deities of Vodun.

Vévés appear again in Voyager (1994), where a female figure rides in a boat named “Wanderer.” In this work, the allusion to slavery is more overt. The Wanderer was the last documented slave ship to sail from the Congo, landing on Georgia’s Jekyll Island in 1858.