Though he’s remembered for jubilant scenes of pleasure and excitement, Barnes also integrated subtle forms of social commentary into his work. Bridget R. Cooks, curator of the Barnes retrospective at CAAM and associate professor of African American studies and art history at the University of California at Irvine, said that Barnes frequently depicted his characters with their eyes closed to represent the way that humans close ourselves off to one another.
“For him, it was a criticism of how people treat each other. He always said, ‘we’re blind to each other’s humanity,’” Cooks shared in a recent interview. “If we could see each other as humans, as people who have equal value, the world would be a different place.”
For example, in Sidewalk Scene with Graduate (1976), a young man in a black cap and gown saunters along a crowded sidewalk. Many of the figures’ eyes are closed, their heads turned slightly upwards with an apparent air of superiority. Each cluster of people appears deeply engaged in its own conversation.