School of Beauty, School of Culture. Kerry James Marshall, 2012. Acrylic and glitter on unstretched canvas. Museum purchase with funds provided by Elizabeth (Bibby) Smith, the Collectors Circle for Contemporary Art, Jane Comer, the Sankofa Society, and general acquisition funds, 2012.57. © Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy of Kerry James Marshall and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY.
School of Beauty, School of Culture, Kerry James Marshall, 2012
For many African American artists born during the Civil Rights Movement, turbulent events they witnessed or experienced growing up during that time affect their later work. Kerry James Marshall, who was born in Birmingham in 1955 and grew up in South Central Los Angeles, experienced two hotbeds of national change firsthand. His body of work responds directly to the Civil Rights Movement, its legacy, and evolving, complicated notions of African American identity.
In School of Beauty, School of Culture, Marshall invites the viewer into a beauty school filled with black female and male figures. As the title suggests, the scene is more than just a beauty salon; this setting, familiar to most African Americans, not only teaches a trade but also educates its clientele about African American culture through fellowship.
Throughout the painting, Marshall strategically places cultural signifiers, such as the poster for Lauryn Hill’s Grammy-award winning album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998). Deeply personal, the album chronicles Hill’s struggles with interpersonal turmoil, love, and God, and continue to resonate today.
The clock reflected in the mirror at right reads “Nation Time,” the title of a song by African American tenor-saxophonist Joe McPhee. Mostly instrumental, the question “What time is it?” becomes a constant refrain, to which a crowd responds “Nation time!,” a direct reference to the black power and black nationalism movements of the 1970s.
Also reflected is the title of the painting written on a wall, suggesting that School of Beauty, School of Culture may also be the name of the salon/beauty school. The words sit atop a red, black, and green border, better recognizable as the Pan-African (or Afro-American) flag, a symbol of the black power movement. Each color in the flag has meaning: red represents the blood connection between all Africans; black, the general skin color; and green, the African land.
Besides these cultural references, Marshall further alludes to art history, perhaps to connect African Americans with Western artistic traditions. Seen in skewed perspective, the blond-haired, blue-eyed head of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty recalls the anamorphic skull in Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533). The presence of the head here comments that, to many Americans, the ideal of beauty is a fair-haired white girl; in this environment, though, that image is both literally and figuratively out of place.
Finally, the figures at right, who watch intently as a stylist washes her client’s hair, could refer to Rembrandt van Rijn’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632). Similarly to how Rembrandt doctor instructs student’s about human musculature, the salon client reclines as the stylist gives instructions about her hair. Both environments are places of learning.
In an interview with Ron Platt, the Museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art, Marshall said, “My whole orientation as an artist is towards showing people things that they wouldn’t be able to see if I didn’t put them in a picture.” He intentionally leaves some ambiguity in the painting to encourage viewers with questions and find connections – or disconnections – for themselves.
—Katherine Ladd, education – visitor engagement intern, spring 2013
Join the Conversation!
Kerry James Marshall’s life experiences inform his artworks. In an Interview with Public Broadcasting Service’s Art 21, Marshall says “You can’t be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and grow up in South Central [Los Angeles] near the Black Panthers headquarters, and not feel like you’ve got some kind of social responsibility.” What do you think that “social responsibility” is, and how does he achieve it? What is your social responsibility?
Take a look at these other works by Marshall, and join the conversation!
De Style, 1993
Better Homes, Better Gardens, 1994
Souvenir II, 1997
“Kerry James Marshall at Secession,” Contemporary Art Daily, November 20, 2012
Art 21: Interview with Kerry James Marshall