Amy Sherald Is Illuminating The “Unseen Narratives” Of Black Life

In Amy Sherald’s second commissioned painting — which graced the August 2020 issue of Vanity Fair — a regal Breonna Taylor stands dressed in vibrant aquamarine, hand on her hip, gaze locked onto its viewers, as if to say, “I’m still here.”
“She sees you seeing her,” Sherald told Vanity Fair. “The hand on the hip is not passive, her gaze is not passive. She looks strong!” The Baltimore-based artist is known for her stunning portraits in which she pays homage to the “unseen narratives” of Black American existence. And in many ways, this portrait tells the part of Breonna’s narrative that she did not get to live. The cross necklace that hangs delicately from her neck, the engagement ring on her left hand — both details are reminders that Breonna is more than a hashtag; she is an “American girl, she is a sister, a daughter, and a hard worker.” And she could have been any one of us.
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“I made this portrait for her family,” said Sherald. “I mean, of course I made it for Vanity Fair, but the whole time I was thinking about her family.”
And that’s what Sherald does best. She magnifies her subjects’ humanity and makes it impossible to ignore. It’s why many of her subjects hold an intimate gaze with their onlookers. She wants you to see them. To feel them. To understand their inner experience. It’s what made her portrait of Michelle Obama — who selected Sherald, winner of the 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, to create her official portrait for the National Portrait Gallery — so powerful, even amid mixed reception. Yes, she is the former first lady, but she is also human. And in that reality, Sherald wants you to see yourself mirrored back to you — "a loving self, a gentle presentation of Black identity," as she once stated.
“I think the greatest way [my portraits express what I perceive in my subjects] is through their eyes,” Sherald explained. “It’s them but essentially it’s the presence I see beyond their outward appearance. What qualifies them and is the impetus for me to approach them, no one else may see.”
Sherald is ensuring that Black narratives are not erased, and that's what makes her so necessary as an artist.
Black Is The New Black is Refinery29’s celebration of Black women who are changing the game. Black women who are reminding the world that we are not a trend or “a moment.” We’re here — and we’ve been here. Check out the full list.
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