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Looking Closely at Portraits by Amy Sherald, Kehinde Wiley, and Titus Kaphar

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Language Arts And English +11 Age Levels Elementary (9 to 12 years old), Middle School (13 to 15 years old), High School (16 to 18 years old)

Three contemporary artists - Amy Sherald, Kehinde Wiley, and Titus Kaphar - grapple with the underrepresentation of African Americans in portraiture and American history. 

Growing up in Columbus, Georgia, Amy Sherald looked for images of African Americans in advertising, art books, and in local museums and galleries. It was disappointing to her as a young adult not to find dignified portrayals of people who looked like her. In 2016, when she won the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition for her painting Miss Everything: Unsuppressed Deliverance, she told a group of young African American girls visiting the museum that she painted the portrait for them so that “when you go to a museum you will see someone who looks like you on the walls.”

Kehinde Wiley is known for his vibrant, large-scale paintings of African Americans posing as famous figures from the history of Western art. Kehinde Wiley’s portraits collate modern culture with the influence of Old Masters. Incorporating a range of vernaculars culled from art historical references, Wiley’s work melds a fluid concept of modern culture, ranging from French Rococo to today’s urban landscape. By collapsing history and style into a unique contemporary vision, Wiley interrogates the notion of master painter, “making it at once critical and complicit.” 

Titus Kaphar illuminates the contributions and sacrifices people of color made during the country’s founding. He defaces, cuts, and peels back his paintings to show how portraits of American historical figures, such as Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, have traditionally coded racial difference, hid systemic prejudices, and omitted the presence of African Americans. 

Essential Questions to Consider:

-How are portraits windows and mirrors?

-Who has told the stories of our nation's history? What does that mean for everyone else?

-What is the importance today of the work of the three artists represented in this collection?

This collection was created to support the 2018 CCSSO Teacher of the Year Day at the Smithsonian.