But the truth of the matter is, Sherald is a giantess in the persnickety world of modern art because of the unique way she captures the likeness of everyday people — everyday black people, to be exact. Sherald paints African Americans in regal poses with haunting eyes. Our skin is colored in various shades of gray from slate to stormy. Sherald has won numerous awards, including the prestigious grand prize of the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition in 2016.
That’s why it was such a big deal that Sherald agreed to partner with Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Art Education Program for the nonprofit’s crown jewel mural of 2019. The piece, Untitled, is emblazoned on the backside of a Center City Target, between 10th and 11th Streets on Sansom, and features North Philly teen Najee Spencer-Young. Sherald put the finishing touches on the piece Monday.
It’s really quite amazing.
In it, Spencer-Young is standing in her own aura of class and self-assurance in a black-and-white graphic print trench and mustard cloche expertly tilted to the side. She stands against a background that’s the most electric of blues. The boldness of the hues coupled with the fact that the portrait sits 20-feet up from the ground makes this image of Spencer-Young beyond larger than life.
"When I first saw it, I cried,” Spencer-Young told me. She’d posted the then-unfinished mural on Instagram the week before to celebrate her birthday. Of course she got hundreds of likes. “I was bullied when I was younger,” she said, her voice trailing off. But then it gets stronger: “Now I’m up there. No one can say this or that to me. I’m confident. You can’t put me down. That’s my proof.”
While Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama fashionably winks at visitors to the National Portrait Gallery, her Mural Arts work potentially has greater impact.
Obama is already the definition of success. By choosing Spencer-Young as her muse, Sherald effectively grabbed the steering wheel of Spencer-Young’s troubled life story and banked a hard turn in the teen’s narrative. Basically Sherald turned Spencer-Young into her own inspiration. And that’s genius.
I’ve been thinking a lot about seizing narratives lately, whether I’m visiting the Colored Girls Museum latest exhibit In Search of the Colored Girl that speaks to the disappearance of black women in their own personal stories, or binge-watching dramas by Shonda Rhimes, Lena Waithe or Spike Lee, who all tell stories of blackness through individual lenses.
There are no monoliths in these tomes.
This weekend Ava DuVernay’s rage-inducing When They See Us dropped on Netflix. The four-part drama recounts the sad story of the five black teens the media dubbed the Central Park Five who were unjustly convicted for the rape and attempted murder of a jogger. If black people had more control over our narrative, instead of being portrayed as animals or thugs, then perhaps these boys would have never gone to trial in the first place.
On the flip side, Jay Z seized his narrative early on in his career and this week Forbes named him the first hip-hop artist to create a billion dollar fortune. He may have started out rapping about selling drugs in the Marcy Projects, but eventually he took off the basketball jersey, went into the boardroom, and, most important, took control not only of his message but of the way it was conveyed.
Sherald’s work — as well as that of Kehinde Wiley, who painted former President Barack Obama for the National Portrait Gallery — exemplifies how our narratives can be seized through modern art. Sherald paints black people in regal poses and uses vintage fashion as costumes, in Sherald’s words, that command respect. The result is portraits that resemble the sepia-toned photos in steel frames that once lived on my grandmother’s dresser.
“I always admired the beauty of black-and-white photography,” Sherald wrote to me in an email. "The photographs I grew up looking at captured the grace and dignity of black America [that] has persisted throughout American history despite everything.”
Sherald said she had every intention of using a city dweller as the subject for the Mural Arts Project, but she didn’t settle on Spencer-Young until they met back in January through a Mural Arts field trip to the Jersey City studio where Sherald often works.
“When I met Najee, she was very quiet and sitting with her head down pretending not to pay attention," Sherald wrote. "…When I asked for volunteers to shoot a few fun photos, [Najee] popped up and we started trying on different outfits. After looking at the photos we took, I immediately knew she was the right model for this mural. I saw it as an opportunity to build her self-esteem as well as [that of] the other young girls that look like her.”
Sherald’s work is just the start. Spencer-Young’s life hasn’t been easy. And her tomorrows will be tough for some time. She’s recovering from the trauma of childhood bullying, and, she says, she barely knows her dad. She’s 19 and she hasn’t yet graduated from high school. She has, however, started the process of enrolling into a program at Benjamin Franklin High School that will help her complete her schooling. She feels better about herself now, in large part because of this mural.
"I’m doing something positive,” Spencer-Young said. “I’m not out here fighting or bullying anyone. I’m trying to take myself to another level. I’m on to something good.”
And any time Spencer-Young momentarily forgets that she, indeed, has the potential to be great, all she has to do is take a stroll down Sansom Street and literally look up to herself to see who she can be — and who Sherald clearly believes she already is.