Black Identity Explored in the Works of Kerry James Marshall and Stacy Lynn Waddell

Contemporary African American artists Kerry James Marshall and Stacy Lynn Waddell, hailing from the American South, weave into their art elements of American history and the complicated cultural idiosyncrasies it has bred. Both artists are shown by Culver City’s Koplin Del Rio, and both are prominently featured in “When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South” at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Influences for Marshall’s work often stem from a combination of folk art and academic rendering, as well as nods to art history and references to the Civil Rights Movement. “You can’t be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and grow up in South Central [Los Angeles] near the Black Panthers headquarters, and not feel like you’ve got some kind of social responsibility,” says Marshall. “You can’t move to Watts in 1963 and not speak about it.” The contents of Marshall’s work challenges stereotypes and runs against the grain of Western ideals. In his photograph, Black Beauty (Alana), Marshall spotlights his female subject under a blue light; rather than appearing manufactured or made-up, she wears understated clothing and jewelry, and appears naturally poised and calm, with a slight smile illuminating her face.

Stacy Lynn Waddell’s tropical landscapes, for which she often uses iron brands and blacksmith tools to burn, brand, and singe her paper, reflects her experience growing up on a farm in Franklin County, North Carolina. The abundant flora and vegetation that spills out around her idyllic seashore scenes is, upon closer inspection, a series of flourished letter Bs—representing alliterative ideas of blackness, branding, and beauty. “A few years ago I made a list of words that started with the letter ‘B’ and created a narrative with the form,” she has said. “‘B’ looks impregnated and elegant. I love the way words that start with “B,” “Bl” or “Br” sounds to the air and how the breath and the body create the sound ‘B.’ ‘B’ is a stand in pop culture and history.”

By incorporating into their work aspects of the personal and political, individual identities and deeply charged narratives, Waddell and Marshall present perspectives that point to the complex, layered, and fraught experiences of African Americans throughout history.  

Haniya Rae

Explore more artists at Koplin del Rio.