The practice of portraiture has historically served not only to represent the subject, but also to preserve their spirit in its most honest form. For Buffalo-based visual artist Julia Bottoms, traditional portraiture is a means to express the nuance and complexities of Black identity beyond limiting, reductive stereotypes. Thinking through historic periods in which portraits were commissioned for figures of prominence, Bottoms’ practice interrogates portraiture as a concept of record. The inclusion – or lack thereof – of Black and Brown bodies in classical portraiture has inspired a new series and conceptual direction in her work.
A Light Under the Bushel features work from this new series, building upon the artist’s interest in expanding narratives around representations of Blackness. Black and Brown people certainly existed during times like the Renaissance and Victorian eras when classical portraits were created. However, their inclusion in such works is rare and highly circumstantial, their lives rarely deemed important enough to be documented by fine art. Bottoms’ new paintings push against this, emphasizing that they have always been an important part of history. Inspired by portraits of these eras, her work fuses the historic with the contemporary through her models’ dress. Her work is reminiscent of the recontextualization of blackness throughout history seen in the work of portrait artist Kehinde Wiley. However, Bottoms moves in a different direction by employing soft, gestural brush strokes and posing her models to emulate classical depictions of saints, Madonna and Child, warriors, and other angelic beings, imbuing her figures with an ethereal presence.
Bottoms reflects on the allusion to religious iconography as twofold in an artist statement on the series:
First, it’s meant to convey the intangible spiritual aspect of each person depicted. Second, it is a reference to Black and Brown bodies as they relate to the history of Christianity. Growing up religious, I often felt a disconnect between the Eurocentric imagery in religious art and what I knew to be the factual appearance of people from the regions described in the Bible. People from the Middle East and North Africa are people of color. The shades and features of Biblical characters would have varied, but the fact that they were of color is undeniable. So it stands to reason that that would be reflected in classical art depictions. However, that is not the case. This exclusion comes with an implication; The alignment of whiteness with purity/goodness and Blackness with corruption/evil has had far-reaching psychological ramifications for us all. In the case of Biblical depictions, this is not only a lack of inclusion, it is erasure.
As I worked on the series, a particular verse came to mind. In Matthew 5:15-16 Jesus says: “Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
I kept thinking about all the talents, all the goodness, and all the truly great accomplishments, lost to time because a person’s skin color disqualified them from being recorded. How many lights were placed under a bushel and how deeply has humanity missed out on great minds for it? How many scientists, poets, mathematicians, and philosophers have been lost to institutional bushels? The light we each possess is still subject in part to the roles we are forced into and the circumstances we must endure. But a light is still a light regardless of its location. In covering it, the light does not cease to be what it is, rather it is *us* who miss out on its illumination.
Overall, this series is meant to spark our imaginations. History cannot be re-written; however, we can find value in reflecting on what inclusion could have looked like. Additionally, perhaps this imagery can inspire an excavation of sorts, in which we search for the accomplishments that have been recorded but ignored or distorted. It is my hope that the work will inspire the contemporary art world and artists going forward. Above all, I challenge the viewer to value the light of every individual and to never be the bushel that conceals it.
A Light Under the Bushel: Paintings by Julia Bottoms is made possible through the generosity of our presenting sponsor, M&T Bank. For his leadership commitment, we gratefully acknowledge Senator Sean M. Ryan, with additional thanks to James & Dorothy Pappas and Gary & Willow Brost for their generous support.