“They Call Me Redbone But I’d Rather Be Strawberry Shortcake” by Amy Sherald

Baltimore artist Amy Sherald’s painting, “They Call Me Redbone But I’d Rather Be Strawberry Shortcake,” has just been acquired for the permanent collection of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC. The canvas will be part of the museum’s Spring 2013 rotation of the permanent collection galleries on the third floor. 

The 2004 Hoffberger School of Painting Graduate has been painting portraits of “racialised bodies” for close to a decade, honing her technique to create images that meld fantasy and reality with a satirical, pop art twist. After graduting from MICA, Sherald travelled to Norway to study with Norweigian painter Odd Nerdrum for a private study residency, and then to Beijing, China to attend an artist residency at the Tong Xion Art Center. Her work has been featured in New American Paintings and American Art Collector and she’s exhibited at Art Basel Miami, the Pennsylvania School of Art and Design, and a number of other galleries in Baltimore, Washington, and New York. 

When she first came to Baltimore, Sherald’s paintings were autobiographical, but her interest shifted into broader, social issues, specifically exploring what it means to be African-American. “My work began as an exploration to exclude the idea of color as race from my paintings by removing ‘color’ but still portraying racialised bodies as objects to be viewed through portraiture,” explains the artist. “These paintings originated as a creation of a fairytale, illustrating an alternate existence in response to a dominant narrative of black history. As my ideas became more legible the use of fantasy evolved into scenes of spectacle (e.g. circuses), to make direct reference to blackness and racialisation.”

Sherald’s circus performers function as a metaphor for  “a specific experience of blackness in America, which has been performed in front of an audience that pretends not to exist.” She bases her artistic ideas on her personal experiences of growing up in the south, attending private schools and being one of very few black children in the class. “I was raised to be conscious of how I acted, spoke, and dressed. This performing aspect of my identity was cultivated from the beginning of my schooling,” explains Sherald. 

In her paintings, which are typically life-sized or larger, her models pose formally, make eye contact with the viewer, and often carry circus props. “Each painting starts with a chance encounter of an individual that embodies certain resonating characteristics,” says the artist. “I am constantly searching for models and creating costumes for each character. Although the figure is painted in gray it is photographed in color, and the skin color is than translated into gray on canvas by using black and naples yellow. I place the figure within an atmospheric background that represents a liminal space as opposed to one that would provide a context of place or time. Thus, creating the impetus for the viewer to truly come face to face with the painted figure as if they are on stage underneath a spotlight.”

Sherald’s figures are physically confrontational, but in a romantic and dreamlike way. There’s a sensitivity and vulnerability about each character that tells a story beyond what their costume or props might suggest. The idea that personal identity is both constructed and performed, especially in relation to political, social, economic, and cultural expectations isn’t new. However, in the context of Sherald’s work, each individual is a compelling mixture of performance and gesture, of ambiguity and authenticity.

You can see Amy Sherald’s paintings in person this Sunday at Galerie Myrtis in ‘Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe: The Contemporary Response.’ The opening reception is from 2-6 pm.
Amy Sherald in her Studio –  photo by Dusan Vuksanovic