Genesis Tramaine (b. 1983) creates expressionist portraits of men and women that combine vigorous handling of materials with intuitive, spiritual inspiration. The National Gallery of Art
has recently acquired its first painting by Tramaine, Clinging unto the Lord (2021). Blending a provocative use of color with an urban-inspired, mixed-media approach, she describes her practice as focused on the shape and definition of the "American Black Face" and as using exaggerated features to capture the spirited emotions of the untapped, underrepresented souls of Black people.
Enlivened by New York graffiti from the 1980s and imagined images of gospel hymns sung Sunday morning during church, Clinging unto the Lord is typical of her recent work: head-and-shoulder portraits based on individual sitters or biblical figures and painted in a trance-like frenzy that can be compared to speaking in tongues. Tramaine's Christian faith informs all aspects of her practice, from prayers said before, during, and after painting, to evangelical titles and inscriptions on the tacking margins of her canvases, to small "spirit guide" figures depicted within the larger work.
Rashid Johnson (b. 1977) is a highly celebrated contemporary artist who explores African American themes and issues of racial, cultural, and gender identity in a range of media. The National Gallery of Art has acquired its first photograph by Johnson, The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club (Emmett) (2008, printed 2022), which depicts two portraits of one individual (one inverted left to right from the other).
In 2008, inspired by Black middle-class clubs formed in the early 20th century to aid fellow African Americans as well as by Afrofuturist thinkers such as Sun Ra, Johnson invented a mystical secret societyThe New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club. The name references the term "New Negro," coined by critic Alain Locke in 1925 to describe a rising generation of self-confident, assertive, and socially aware Black intellectuals. Johnson made a series of portraits from 2008 to 2009 that depicts the members of this fictional men's club.
This picture's title also refers to Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African American boy who was brutally murdered by white supremacists in Mississippi in 1955. The devastating photograph of Till's mangled body published in Jet magazine at the insistence of his mother may seem disconnected from Johnson's portrait of a well-dressed, well-groomed sitter. But this extraordinarily multilayered work offers yet another reference: the model's parted hair and goatee recall portraits of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, reputedly the most photographed man of the 19th century.