EXPLORING RACE, REPRESENTATION AND PERFORMANCE, there is a certain something about the portraits painted by Baltimore artist Amy Sherald. Painted in grayscale, the bodies of her subjects are absent of color. Everything else in the large-scale fantastical portraits of African Americans—their distinctive clothing and the background against which they are set—celebrates color.

The Smithsonian is recognizing her unique approach. Sherald is the winner of the National Portrait Gallery’s 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. The museum awarded her first prize for “Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance),” a striking 2014 oil on canvas (above).

The honor includes a $25,000 cash prize and a commission to create a portrait of a living person for the museum’s permanent collection.

BORN IN COLUMBIA, S.C., Sherald graduated from Clark Atlanta University and earned an MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art. In 2013, she had a solo exhibition at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts recently acquired one of her portraits, “They Call Me Redbone but I’d Rather Be Strawberry Shortcake” (209).

She says the “scope of her experiences involving race” is rooted in her Southern upbringing, attending private schools with only a few other black students.

“I was raised to be conscious of how I acted, spoke and dressed,” she says in a statement on her website.

In the statement, she describes her approach to portraiture: “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. 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.”

“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.” — Amy Sherald

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FIRST PRIZE: AMY SHERALD, “Miss Everything (Unsupressed Deliverance),” 2013 (oil on canvas, 54″ × 43″). | Collection of Frances and Burton Reifler

 

She continues: “I stage specific scenes of social ascent, and racial descent that chart the psychology and performance of identity with a particular attention to notions of social exclusion and assimilation. All of these things configure a practiced position or role played within a specific space or context.”

More than a decade ago, Sherald was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and had no idea how long she would live.

“I never imagined myself living to be past a certain age so approaching the canvas was like okay I have 10 years to make this legacy that I want to leave behind and what is this going to be after I die. Everything about painting was cathartic for those reasons,” she says in the video above.

Amy Sherald faced a major health crisis. “Everything about painting was cathartic for those reasons,” she says.

 

SHERALD’S PORTRAIT and works by 42 other artists who participated in the competition (including six artists who were shortlisted for the top prize), are featured in a new exhibition at the Washington, D.C., museum, “The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today,” on view through Jan. 8, 2017. The exhibition features a number of portraits depicting black people by artists from a variety of backgrounds.

Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, says the portraits showcase national conversations.

“These works not only are geographically diverse, they also reflect discussions around gender, race, poverty, healthcare, at-risk youth, migration and the power of family. These pieces are powerful in this regard because each displays an intimate connection between the artists and their sitters,” Sajet said in a press release.

“These works not only are geographically diverse, they also reflect discussions around gender, race, poverty, healthcare, at-risk youth, migration and the power of family. These pieces are powerful in this regard…” — Kim Sajet, Director of the National Portrait Gallery

 

The featured artists were selected from among more than 2,500 who entered the competition, submitting portraits in a range of mediums from painting, drawing, prints, photography, textiles, and sculpture to digital media and video.

Jurors included Chicago-based photographer and Columbia College of Art professor Dawoud Bey; Helen Molesworth, chief curator at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art; New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz; and John Valadez, a Los Angeles–based painter and muralist. From the National Portrait Gallery, Chief Curator Brandon Brame Fortune, and Dorothy Moss, associate curator of painting and sculpture, also served on the jury. Moss directed the competition, which is held every three years.

After its debut at the National Portrait Gallery, the exhibition is traveling to the Tacoma Art Museum, Feb. 4-May 14,2017; Art Museum of South Texas (June 8-Sept. 10, 2017); and Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art (Oct. 6, 2017-Jan. 7, 2018). CT

 

In addition to Amy Sherald’s painting, the exhibition includes a number of portraits of black people by artists from a variety of backgrounds. A selection appears below:

 

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MARTI CORN, “Johnny Jones,” 2013 (pigment print). | Collection of the artist

 

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MIKE SMITH, “Watauga, TN,” 2014 (Inkjet print). | Collection of the artist

 

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TIM OKAMURA, “Love Your Hair,” 2013 (oil and mixed media on canvas). | Yeelen Gallery, Miami, Florida

 

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ALLISON JANAE HAMILTON, “Haints at Swamp II,” 2014 (C-print mounted on sintra/plexi). | Collection of the artist

 

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THIRD PRIZE: JOEL DANIEL PHILLIPS, “Eugene #4J,” 2014 (charcoal and graphite on paper). | Ken Stone

 

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CHRISTINE OSINKSI, “Atisha at the Cooper Union School of Art,” 2014 (inkjet print). | Collection of the artist

 

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SHORTLIST: SEDRICK HUCKABY, “Sedrick, Sed, Daddy,” 2014 (oil on canvas). | Beverly and George Palmer, courtesy of Valley House Gallery & Sculpture Garden, Dallas, Texas

 

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PAUL D’AMATO, “Margaret and Marquetta Tisdell, Original Providence Baptist Church,” 2013 (Inkjet print). | Collection of the artist, courtesy of Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago, Illinois

 

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DONITA SIMPSON, “Gilda Snowden in Her Detroit Studio,” 2014 (pigment print). | Collection of the artist