A BEAUTIFUL PORTRAIT of Breonna Taylor looking regal and “ethereal” in a flowing blue-green gown graces the cover of the September 2020 issue of Vanity Fair. The portrait is a painting by Amy Sherald, a posthumous tribute commissioned by the magazine for The Great Fire, a special project guest edited by journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates. Bringing together a new generation of artists, activists, and writers, the issue explores and interrogates racial justice, cultural and political power, and the contemporary Black experience in this American moment.

Sherald usually selects her subjects, ordinary people who evince some extraordinary quality to which she is drawn. She has accepted two commissions in her two-decade career. The first was an official portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The second was a cover portrait of Taylor for Vanity Fair.

 


Breonna Taylor by Amy Sherald. | Vanity Fair, September 2020

 

A daughter, sister, girlfriend, and friend, Taylor worked as an emergency room technician. As the pandemic began to take hold, she was on the frontlines in the fight against COVID-19. Taylor’s life was cut short on March 13, when she was shot to death in her own home by police in Louisville, Ky. It was just past midnight. She was 26.

Vanity Fair writer Miles Pope spoke with Sherald about her process for making Taylor’s portrait. Unable to photograph and engage with her subject, her normal practice, Sherald took great care to learn about her personality and paid close attention to details in her life. Taylor was “self-possessed, brave, loving, loved,” Pope wrote. Her boyfriend had planned to propose to her. In the portrait, Taylor is wearing an engagement ring.

Sherald also studied her subject’s preferences in terms of fashion and hairstyles. The artist worked with a young woman who shared “similar physical attributes” with Taylor, who served as her model. Atlanta-based Jasmine Elder, founder of the fashion label JIBRI, designed the dress Taylor is wearing specifically for the portrait.

“She sees you seeing her. The hand on the hip is not passive, her gaze is not passive. She looks strong!” Sherald told Pope, speaking about Taylor’s portrait. “I wanted this image to stand as a piece of inspiration to keep fighting for justice for her. When I look at the dress, it kind of reminds me of Lady Justice.”

“I wanted this image to stand as a piece of inspiration to keep fighting for justice for [Breonna Taylor]. When I look at the dress, it kind of reminds me of Lady Justice.” — Amy Sherald

It’s a theme woven throughout the magazine—the quest for justice, which has remained out of reach for generations and still feels elusive. On Aug. 23 Jacob Blake was shot seven times at close range by police in Kenosha, Wisc. Blake survived and is paralyzed from the waist down, according to his attorney. This latest shooting of a Black person at the hands of police coincided with the announcement of Vanity Fair’s special issue.

For the cover story, Coates went to Louisville to meet Taylor’s family and published a first-person narrative about the young woman’s life from the perspective of Tamika Palmer, her heartbroken mother.

There is a collective oral history of the protests that spread across the nation in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis. In the wake of museums reckoning with race this summer, Kimberly drew spoke to artists, curators, and museum leaders about what museums should look like in 2020. Rodney Passé made a short film about the voices from the Black Lives Matter Movement.

“True Stories About the Great Fire,” a poem published in a collection by Eve L. Ewing, inspired the title of the special edition of the magazine. The volume, “1919,” explores the Chicago Race Riot, the nation’s most intense riot during Red Summer in 1919.

In his editor’s letter, Coates explains that the poem considers the views of white Chicagoans who saw the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to Chicago akin to the disaster and crisis of the Great Chicago Fire, a massively destructive fire in 1871. For Vanity Fair, Ewing wrote about the price of police unions.

There is much more coverage and the issue is rife with contributions from Black artists, illustrators, and photographers. LaToya Ruby Frazier photographed Taylor’s family in Louisville. John Edmonds photographed Coates. Painter Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe made a portrait of New York-based fashion designer Christopher John Rogers.

Lawrence Agyei, Miranda Barnes, Arielle Bobb-Willis, Wulf Bradley, Paul Octavious, Ruth Ossai, Dana Scruggs, and Lynsey Weatherspoon are among the photographers who made portraits of 22 activists and visionaries at the forefront of change, including the three women who co-founded Black Lives Matter. Illustrations by Monica Ahanonu, Diana Ejaita, and Shawn Martinbrough are also featured.

Sherald’s cover image introduces the special issue. The unveiling of Taylor’s portrait comes weeks after O: The Oprah Magazine revealed its September 2020 cover featuring the young woman. Sherald said she painted her portrait for Taylor’s family. She wanted to create a lasting presence.

“I wanted it to feel ethereal but grounded at the same time,” Sherald told Vanity Fair. “…producing this image keeps Breonna alive forever.” CT

 

FIND MORE about Amy Sherald on her website

FIND MORE CBS News spoke with Vanity Fair Editor Radhika Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates about the special issue

 

BOOKSHELF
“Amy Sherald” documents the artist’s first major solo museum show, a traveling exhibition organized by the Contemporary Art Museum Saint Louis. “The Obama Portraits” explore’s the portraits painted by Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley. “Parker Looks Up: An Extraordinary Moment” is a children’s book about Sherald’s portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama. Ta-Nehisi Coates is the author of three books “The Beautiful Struggle: A Memoir,” “Between the World and Me,” and “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy,” and a recently published novel, “The Water Dancer.” A collection of poems by Eve L. Ewing, “1919” explores the Chicago Race Riot of 1919.

 

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