In 2018, Kerry James Marshall made history as the first surviving African American artist to sell artwork at an auction for $21.1 million. Kerry’s work, “Past Times,” featured a black family in an aristocratic setting, where they are seen playing golf and cricket, and also engaging in water skiing on the lake. A life that is in sharp contrast to how people of African descent have always been portrayed in European art.
Reflecting what this painting means to the preservation of the heritage of the black community, it recorded the highest record figure for the price it was sold. The artwork was bought by hip-hop artist Sean Combs, the founder of Bad Boy Entertainment. Though this was a record-high auction, Kerry never set out to make wealth out of his paintings.
His work is a product of his exposure to the civil rights movement, which impressed a social obligation on him to project black empowerment. He craved a career in art the very moment his teacher, Mary Hill, showed the class a scrapbook full of greeting cards, pictures, and other imagery. However, the first time he saw an artwork was in the fifth grade.
He was inspired by Black social realist painter, Charles White, who gave him his first studio experience, according to the Seattle Art Museum. His paintings largely celebrate the African American working class whether in their neighborhood, family life, or blacks residing in decent accommodations – this may be the reason why the former first lady, Michelle Obama, is his big fan. Kerry’s paintings delve deep into themes of black identity and the social injustice they grapple with in their day-to-day social affairs, according to the Guardian.
Born on October 17, 1955, in Birmingham, Kerry was raised in Watts’ neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles, and attended the Otis College of Art and Design. Growing up in his neighborhood, he naturally developed sympathy for the black cause, which influenced his worldview and advocacy. As a contemporary artist, he draws inspiration from his history and interaction with black culture.
To him, Western paintings have been biased in framing black identity. Some of his fans believe this may have influenced his colorful expressions of art when painting black subjects. He projects the blackness and the setting they find themselves in, the New Yorker reported.
The Birmingham native has always enjoyed working in obscurity, however, Success has found a way of associating with his drawings. Many galleries and museums have exhibited his works over his thirty-year career. In 1997, he won the MacArthur Fellowship grant to project his paintings.
His style has sparked interest in a new generation of artists who are demonstrating a love for figurative art. Though his early works earned him little in monetary value, he followed the overriding goal of projecting black identities into black bodies. Kerry is married to Stranger Than Fiction actress, Cheryl Lynn Bruce.