Two new paintings by Kerry James Marshall feature a central crow that looms over a botanical backdrop. One or two birdhouses, which have entrances that are too small for the blackbirds to fit through, are perched on the leafy branches along with more petite species. Part of an ongoing series, the acrylic paintings are based on John James Audubon’s Birds of America, an archetypal text cataloging 435 life-size watercolors of avian creatures.
Marshall’s artworks provide a multivalent counterhistory to conceptions of race in the United States. While Audubon is recognized widely for his contribution to ecology and natural history in America, his own background is conflicting. The ornithologist was born as Jean Rabin in Haiti to unmarried parents: his father was a white plantation owner, while his mother’s identity is not as well-documented. However, many people believe she was a Creole chambermaid who may have had a mixed racial heritage. When Audubon migrated to the United States in the 19th century, he changed his name and masked his potentially biracial background.
Throughout his life, the famous birdwatcher and artist both supported and actively participated in chattel slavery, enslaving and selling people throughout the early 1800s. Audubon, who passed as white, also sought out relationships with presidents James Harrison and Andrew Jackson to promote his studies. In 1976, though, the artist’s work was included by curator David C. Driskell in his exhibition Two Centuries of Black American Art, which positioned Audubon within the Black arts canon.
Today, Marshall utilizes ornithologist’s studies as a way to consider the narratives around race in his series, Black and part Black Birds in America, which on view virtually through August 30 at David Zwirner. The Chicago-based artist paints large crows in chromatic black, which is composed entirely of dark reds, blues, or greens. Another smaller bird, like a goldfinch or cardinal, has the deep shade on its face or wings, evoking the one-drop rule, or the claim that one Black ancestor was enough to grant a relative that same identity.
Because Marshall forgoes actual black pigment when painting, he evidences that racial categories are simply a social construction rather than a biological fact. Similarly, the ambiguous titles of the series compare the classification of birds to that of people, utilizing the color to reference both the creatures’ feathers and human categorization of race. “None of us works in isolation. Nothing we do is disconnected from the social, political, economic, and cultural histories that trail behind us. The value of what we produce is determined by comparison with and in contrast to what our fellow citizens find engaging,” Marshall says.
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