STOCKBRIDGE — Award-winning painter, illustrator and author Kadir Nelson — whose portfolio includes magazine covers, children’s books and work for the US Postal Service — are often mini-commentaries and celebrations of Black history, broadcast on Saturday, July 23 at the Norman Rockwell will be speaking at the museum.
His performance is in conjunction with the exhibition In Our Lifetime: Paintings from the Pandemic by Kadir Nelson, a time period spanning some of the country’s most turbulent racial justice issues, including a book signing free to museum members. as well as children and young people, from 11:00 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Her 4:30 p.m. talk is open to the general public with museum admission, plus an additional $25 admission fee for the talk, and prior registration is required.
The exhibition, which runs through October 30, includes Say Their Names, a depiction of George Floyd that includes the faces of other black victims of racial violence and discrimination, and American Uprising, which the artist paid tribute to referred to what black women are doing to address systemic barriers to equality.
“Say Their Names” appeared on the June 2020 cover of The New Yorker, a month after Floyd’s brutal death in police custody that was captured on video and sparked nationwide protests, and “American Uprising” appeared on the July 2020 cover of Rolling Stone, after Joe Hutchinson, the creative director, asked Nelson to portray that aftermath in an illustration that Hutchinson later described as the “perfect” balance of “what we needed for the cover” by “sending a statement, calling for change, but also reflects our current culture.”
The two are almost partners as Floyd’s murder came two months after that of Breonna Taylor, a young black emergency room technician who died after being shot five times during a botched police raid on her home. Nelson has said that “American Uprising,” with its powerful image of a modern African-American woman leading a civil rights protest with her arm raised, was inspired by Eugene Delacroix’s famous 1830 work “Liberty Leading the People,” which features a female character in similar position, embodying the spirit of the French Revolution.
“I wanted something that was very hopeful and inspirational,” Nelson said in a Rolling Stone interview about why he had the Delacroix painting in mind when creating “American Uprising.” He added that one of the “favorite parts” of his painting is the woman’s scarf, the American flag around her neck showing how patriotic she is, this woman loves America.”
The exhibition runs concurrently with IMPRINTED: Illustrating Race, an exhibition co-curated by Stephanie Haboush Plunkett, the museum’s Associate Director and Chief Curator, which explores the role of widespread 18th-century imagery in public perceptions of race and culture .
“‘Imprinted’ explores more than 300 years of racial representation in art from history to the present,” said Plunkett. “It culminates in the creative achievements of contemporary artists who have helped transform the cultural narrative by creating positive, inclusive imagery that emphasizes full agency and justice for all, and that is what Kadir sought to achieve through his art .”
She noted that Nelson shares some qualities as an artist with Norman Rockwell, who is also celebrated for his style and perspective on daily life and its intimate and enduring subjects.
“Like Rockwell, Nelson is an extremely accomplished realist painter and illustrator, and an observer of human nature and the world around him,” said Plunkett. “Her work has examined all aspects of American society, from the mundane to the most important events or issues of the time. Like Rockwell, Nelson studies art history and is heavily inspired by Rockwell’s work.”
She called the Nelson exhibition a “wonderful way to discover the artist” for those unfamiliar with his work.
“For visitors who are new to Kadir Nelson’s work, this is a wonderful way to discover and connect with the artist,” said Plunkett. “‘In Our Lifetime’ is a wide range of images that reflect both historical and contemporary themes – and many represent the most challenging time we’ve lived around the world. Created for popular magazines such as The New Yorker, National Geographic, Rolling Stone and for television and print media, the artworks represent many – from everyday citizens of all ages to celebrities representing names well known from popular culture and the news are.”
She noted that the exhibition includes paintings such as Say Their Names, which refer to “scenes of racial injustice and violence,” as well as others that depict a different kind of resilience.
“In ‘After the Storm,’ Nelson was compelled to create an optimistic future where citizens of the world come together as the dark clouds of the pandemic clear,” Plunkett said. “People hold hands and hug as they look ahead and up to a new day. Her big eyes and her unmasked smile give hope for a future together. As the artist stated, ‘We are all human, and we are all part of the human family, and we are all experiencing this together.’”
The exhibition shows 12 large-format works that are being shown together for the first time. It includes six illustrations commissioned for the cover of The New Yorker, plus “Tulsa,” Nelson’s commemoration of the centenary of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, one of the worst racist attacks in the country’s history, and “Centennial” , his homage to the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro National League in 1920, which in the days of segregation provided African American baseball players with an organized forum in which to play and be recognized.
The exhibition was organized by Kadir Nelson, Inc/The JKBN Group and Jungmiwha Bullock, general partner of the group, who has a PhD in American Studies and Ethnology. Bullock will join Cinque Henderson, a writer and critic, for the Saturday afternoon talk “Seeking Beauty: A Talk with Kadir Nelson and Friends” on the museum terrace, followed by a reception and book signing.
Plunkett said she and Laurie Norton Moffat, museum director, had “been looking for an opportunity to collaborate with Kadir for many years” and were “thrilled” when his studio agreed to present a planned touring exhibition of his artwork created during the pandemic at the Rockwell Museum in collaboration with Imprinted, which also has some of his tracks.
“The studio’s original plan was to launch a traveling exhibit this fall, but they were kind enough to work with us to move the timeline forward,” Plunkett said. “We are very pleased to present the exhibition this summer and have created an independent gallery for Kadir Nelson’s powerful paintings to be presented in conjunction with ‘Imprinted’ and as a crescendo for ‘Imprinted’.” The exhibition happened to coincide, on both Pages.
Nelson, who works in the style of the European and American masters of realism, has previously exhibited in western Massachusetts. In honor of Black History Month 2012, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art presented its We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball exhibit, and Sharon Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s daughter and author, joined Nelson for a day in Amherst Museum to discuss the exhibition of 33 paintings and 13 preliminary sketches made for Nelson’s book of the same name, published in 2008 for young readers.
Earlier this year, His 16 original paintings accompanying Kwame Alexander’s poem The Undefeated, which celebrates the achievements of Black Americans in various fields, were on display at the Carle Museum. Nelson won the 2020 Caldecott Medal and Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for his paintings when the poem was published in picture book format, and Alexander, a Newbery Honor for the text.
A Washington, DC native who lives in Los Angeles, Nelson worked for DreamWorks Animation after graduation, creating conceptual artwork for Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated 1997 film Amistad and the animated film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. from the Pratt Institute in New York.
He has illustrated more than 30 children’s books, painted the cover artwork for Michael Jackson’s posthumously released album Michael, and designed more than a dozen postage stamps celebrating Black Americans such as NBA player Wilt Chamberlin, teacher and activist Anna Julia Cooper, and others honor singer-songwriter Marvin Gaye.
His paintings are in the permanent collections of several in Washington, DC, including the United States House of Representatives, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, among others.