The story of portrait painting rewinds you back to the roots of art history, when artists were commissioned to paint the pensive (sometimes stuffy) mugs of rulers and the elite. Since most American art education before college leans towards Western art mostly made by white male artists, Delita Martin seeks to switch the roles here. In her solo exhibition Black Birds in the Night Sky at Gallery 221 at HCC, Martin’s interest is in rewriting the problematic or stereotypical representations of black women and their roles within the community and family.
Instead of seeing these women through the preconceived — and potentially tainted — vision of the public realm, Martin reconstructs the identity of black women by portraying them through her own lens. Inspiration for her work comes from oral storytelling, with her piece "Remembrance" being the most upfront with narrative content. A woman in a yellow top looks off into the distance, with a blue halo of words swirling around her head.
Incorporated into her visual narratives, the text comes off like a diary entry in which the young girl explains her turmoil growing up: A white girl invites her to play with her toys, but her mother won’t let her touch them. If she broke one, her mom would lose her job, insinuating that the white child’s parents were the employers. Whether or not the chronicle refers to times of slavery is beside the point, because it could easily be a story you might hear in contemporary life, showing the complexities of racial situations that run deeper than blunt confrontation.
Martin’s background is in drawing and printmaking, and her work blends the two together along with collaged fabric and doilies and stenciling to create visually active works that seem to nod to the works of Kehind Wiley or Ebony G. Patterson. Repetitive shapes and patterning dazzle in "Untitled (Woman with Shells)." The psychology of a portrait involves establishing a connection of trust between the sitter, the artist, and the viewer; and narrative portraiture is more about revealing the inner essence of a person without resorting to an actual likeness per se. The woman’s eyes draw you in, acting as a source of information about her, but Martin’s concern for facial accuracy isn’t the point. Her disinterest in portraying the body perfectly reminds of the work of Alice Neel, and humanizes these women rather than belaboring physiological ideals.
Taking time to tease out the nuances in the facial expressions, body language, hairstyles, and choice of clothing, the viewer is slowed down to examine the beauty in not just the traditionally beautiful, but in all faces. Narrative portraiture usually includes items or symbols in the setting to assist viewers in understanding that moment, but most of Martin’s works on view aren’t too overtly descriptive in their story (like in "Lady in Red or Night Mother"). Many serve more as a record or remembrance than making any explicit statement about life as an African-American woman — which perhaps in itself is a quiet remark about the lack of documentation and reverence of black culture in America.
Compared to previous prints that heavily feature warm tones, the works on display in her new series Night Women are mostly done in a palette of blues and teals. Despite the calm of the night, there is an energy that pulses behind the portraits, displaying a range of emotions, from sadness to resilience and everything in between. Martin’s figures are bold and powerful, but the sensitivity in the works is inherently understood.
Even the way the prints are hung — which may or may not have been intentional — so that most of the women’s eyes are below the viewer's eye level becomes part of understanding the series by creating a hierarchy between the viewer and the women as they look up at us and hold our gaze with tired but fierce eyes. Yet, power is not withheld from these women, as these prints are far from small and meek; they are surprisingly large and imposing in person.
Thinking over the exhibition and what it means to make “narrative” work, Martin opens this word to mean more than simply art that tells a story. Much of the work smartly relies on everyday life as a springboard to interpret the works, leaving them open but subtly prodding when we start to consider the current upheavals within our country.
The beauty of Martin’s prints is only a starting point to end marginalization and become more immersive in our appreciation of the varied representation of art produced in the world — but it moves us in the right direction.
Delita Martin: Black Birds in the Night Sky
Gallery 221 at HCC, 4001 W. Tampa Bay Blvd, Tampa.
Through March 2.