When director Kristen Turner received a call from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (lakma) When I asked her if she’d be ready to make a movie about the animators Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, she didn’t hesitate to say yes. She has followed the work of both artists for several years, even going to see Sherald’s work in New York when she was nine months pregnant. And I knew the only way to show Willie and Sherald in all their glory, she told me, was to “give them the same respect, reverence and respect” as their sitters. The final product “Paint & Pitchfork” explores the unfinished legacy of two black cultural icons, and how by painting themselves, their subjects, and their people into the artistic and historical record they attempt to correct the social and cultural absence of, as Wiley says, in the film, “People Like Me.”
Wiley talks about growing up in south-central Los Angeles at a time when his artistic career flourished and family bonds forged, even in the face of poverty. In the documentary, images of those years appear on screen, accompanied by jazz-fueled musical instruments: drum beats present an image of a young Wiley with a head of Basquiat’s hair; Metallic rods of vibraphone give way to the artist as an adult depicted among a sea of smiling family members, all dressed in colorful clothes and embracing close. Turner displays the lush and intricate backgrounds of Wiley’s large-scale paintings before magnifying the finer details: his painting, brush strokes, and areas of canvas in which he meticulously paints. Wiley explains his extensive drawing towards the seventeenth and eighteenth century masters such as Diego Velasquez and Francisco Goya, and towards contemporary art masters, including Charles White and Kerry James Marshall; In part due to this combination of influence, Wiley decided his style would be too majestic—and too dark. “I was looking at it, and I was putting myself in it,” he says, pointing to major European photographs.
The film then revolves around Sherald, who is shown in head-to-toe denim, her collar open and her curls nurturing her curly hair. Her roots go back to the American South, and she explains how the conservatism in her hometown of Columbus, Georgia, became a model for what not to be emulated in her life and art. Horns swing through the development of her childhood portraits, and we see the amazing color schemes of her art reflected in her clothes – as if she was just beginning to develop her style. “I drew one, where I found this young woman who was living outside the box. I realized that was the kind of person I was looking for,” says Sherald. “These are the people who have to be represented in art history and to be on the walls of institutions. These are the people who need to look at something and find their humanity within, because sometimes it is impossible to find anywhere else.”
The artists’ time lines converged when they received life-changing commissions from the National Portrait Gallery to memorialize the Obama family. Wiley’s work tends to frame black men with allegorical flowers and other patterns. In his portrait of Barack Obama, Wiley added botanical representations of the former president’s past, including flowers from Hawaii, Illinois, and Kenya, which extend from their leafy curtains to embrace the sober sitter. Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama is typical of the artist’s color-blocking style, which underscores the former first lady’s laxative luxury.
Both portraits commemorate their subjects, although it is no more than what the artists aim to do for every black person they depict. What unites their work is that it is a direct title to a void of representation – they use their medium to say “yes” to black humanity when history says “no”. “The question I get asked a lot is, ‘Are you going to paint anyone other than black? My answer is ‘No, I won’t,’ says Sherald. “I’m here to draw my perfect model and represent it to the world, and if I can’t do that, then something is very wrong.” She adds, as a final note to the film, “You should look at a history book and then see if you want to ask me that question, because the problem is that you realize the absence of yourself, but you don’t realize the absence of I.”