Kerry James Marshall

Kenny Ackerman

Kerry James Marshall is an American artist best known for large-scale paintings depicting African American life and history. Marshall was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1955 and grew up in South Central Los Angeles, where the Civil Rights and Black Power movements had a major impact on his later choice of subject matter. He earned his BFA from the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles in 1978.

Marshall’s trademark style entails paintings populated by coal black figures, which simultaneously represent the perspective of African Americans and challenge harmful racial stereotypes. His mural-sized works typically address themes including the Civil Rights movement, the hardships faced by many in the Black community, and the search for Black identity. His paintings incorporate elements of both popular culture and traditional African aesthetics.

Marshall has produced several notable series of works, including the Garden Project, which confronts the idealized, pastoral names of housing projects which bely the desperation within, and the Lost Boys series, which explores the challenges faced by many young Black men, including joblessness, illiteracy, and ghettoization. In the midst of such heavy subject matter, Marshall showcases the sense of community, hope, and vibrancy that African Americans have cultivated in the face of these obstacles. In a 1998 interview, Marshall observed:

“Black people occupy a space, even mundane spaces, in the most fascinating ways. Style is such an integral part of what black people do that just walking is not a simple thing. You’ve got to walk with style. You’ve got to talk with a certain rhythm; you’ve got to do things with some flair. And so in the paintings I try to enact that same tendency toward the theatrical that seems to be so integral a part of the black cultural body.”

Marshall received a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant in 1997, and his first major solo exhibition was organized at the University of Chicago in 1998. His work has since been included in many major international exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale and Documenta. He lives and works in Chicago, Illinois, where he has taught at the University of Illinois’s School of Art and Design.