Kerry James Marshall
by Maddison Laney
Great America is a painting that combines elements of both acrylic and collage media on canvas. It was completed by artist Kerry James Marshall in 1994 and has been on display at the National Gallery of Art located in Washington, D.C., since 2011. The 8.5 by 9.5 foot piece depicts a small boat loaded with African American passengers sailing over a vibrant blue sea that has nearly reached its destination: a small, dark tunnel. The boat and tunnel combined are meant to be reminiscent of an amusement park-style ride, but this impression is juxtaposed by the white, ghost-like figures waiting for the passengers at the end of the underpass, giving the destination less of the joyous feel that usually accompanies carnivals and more of an ominous and foreboding effect. The title, “Great America,” is depicted on a banner in the bottom right corner of the piece. Exclamations, such as “WOW” and “FUN,” surround the boat, but the intrinsic meaning of the words is undermined by the way they are portrayed: the former is set on a blood-red background, and the latter is “whited-out” to the point of being barely visible. The main focal point is clearly the passenger-laden boat and the tunnel oriented to the right of the painting, while the left includes smaller symbols, such as a red cross, a couple of circlets of yellow stars, and a faint veil that nearly covers the entire left half of the painting.
Historical and Cultural Context
America had long been a place of refuge and opportunity for those in search of it, starting from the very first settlers looking for religious liberty or riches. This led to America’s reputation as the “land of the free,” though it was decades before Francis Scott Key would pen these words in our national anthem. However, it soon became apparent that this moniker only applied as long as it was convenient for those who placed themselves at the top of society, and white comfort was achieved at the expense of numerous other minorities. If there wasn’t enough room, settlers would drive out Native Americans, seeing them as nothing more than a nuisance; immigrants would be turned away if they posed any variety and inconvenience; and Africans were enslaved for generations, all in the name of profit and supporting the “American Dream.”
Marshall’s painting is a representation of the Middle Passage, the slave transportation system that ran along the triangular trade route in the Atlantic Ocean during the era when the slave trade and slavery were still legal and rampant in America. Ships used in the Middle Passage would be packed above capacity with as many people as the slave traders could make fit, leading to extremely cramped quarters and horrendous conditions (Klein). The state of the ships was so bad that it was barely livable, and many perished during the months-long journey across the ocean. And yet, when the ships arrived at their destination, the slaves’ situation was far from improving, as they were sold as property and condemned to a life devoid a freedom. The painting evokes different aspects of a slave’s journey to America: the small, cramped boat is meant to symbolize one of these massive, yet still packed, slave ships, and the despondent tunnel represents the destination, America, where the people would be forced to live as property.
The creator of the piece is artist Kerry James Marshall, an African American man born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 (Frank-Witt) – about a century after slavery was
abolished, but right when the Civil Rights Movement was just beginning. Growing up in this time and place as well as during the Black Arts Movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s has played a great part in providing inspiration for Marshall’s artistic work. The Civil Rights Movement lends the goal of achieving overall racial equality, and the Black Arts Movement narrows this objective down to obtaining equality within and through culture and art.
Larry Neal, one of the leaders of the Black Arts Movement, called it “the cultural wing of the struggle for black nationhood,” and it coincided closely with the Black Power Movement. The movement sought to establish a distinct black culture in America, and did so through the visual as well as musical, theatrical, and poetic arts. Specifically, Marshall draws from the Black Arts Movement goals of promoting “black is beautiful” (Collins) and defeating the American cultural tendency of “white-washing.”
Themes and Style
Kerry James Marshall works in a multitude of media, from installation pieces and sculptures (Garden of Delights; Mementos) to oil and acrylic canvas paintings and ink comics (Dark and Handsome; Rhythm Master). He’s even including glitter in some of his
works, such as in the acrylic School of Beauty, School of Culture. Indeed, Marshall’s style cannot be pinned down by one form of expression, but is better characterized by the subject matter and figures he chooses to express. Many of his three-dimensional works utilize photography and quotations that have featured heavily in African-American history, while his two-dimensional works are sized on an exaggerated scale in the Grand Manner style and feature stark-black individuals that have become a distinct mark of Marshall’s work (Frank-Witt). The two-dimensional Great America is no different, as it is large enough to cover a wall entirely and also features numerous figures with extremely dark skin. The polymorphous nature of Marshall’s collection of works serves to reach a wide audience and to achieve the goal of bringing black culture from the periphery to the forefront of America’s mind.
In Great America, Marshall ties together the hodgepodge nature of collage with the adaptable media of acrylic on canvas. In a video created for the National Gallery of Art where he talks about Great America and his exhibit there, Marshall mentions the stylistic choices he made in the painting. He says that the choice to implement collage elements stemmed from the idea that African-American history is a sort of patchwork, where the entire narrative cannot be found in one place but is instead a pieced together collection of memories that is continually being reworked as new information is found and added. The decision to include the water “drips” was also intentional, as they represent a certain kind of “spontaneity” and “casualness” that goes hand-in-hand with the cobbled-together nature of black history. The visibility of certain marks and brushstrokes is meant to acknowledge the piece as an object as well as a narrative and to take the viewer out of the story the image is telling and into the present reality. This strategy allows people to easily make the connection between the narrative of the painting and the present reality.
Marshall’s depiction of the Middle Passage as an amusement park ride in Great America further strengthens the ties between the slave trade era the image is depicting and the present. The connection implies that, though slavery has been outlawed in the United States for some time, society still operates in a way that puts some groups at the head while other minorities are placed further down the social ladder, revealing that America is still not the land of freedom and opportunity for all people that it claims to be. The exclamations surrounding the boat, the circles of stars, and the title of the piece, Great America, are meant to provide a sense of patriotism for the American way, but the overall message of the painting leads to these elements being used ironically instead. The dark tunnel and pale figures show what is truly in store for the boat’s passengers once they reach America – not a grand life of freedom like the “American dream” embodies, but a hard path where they will be enslaved and treated like they are less than human. The painting, completed in 1994, was meant to reveal something about the present day of twenty-three years ago, in the hopes that it would lead to a change in society. However, not much has changed in twenty-three years, and connections between the modern and slaveholding era are still apparent. Opportunity is not shared equally, and instead certain social classes are provided with more than others; discrimination is still apparent, such as in the way our police force often handles matters of race; and even the arts remain unbalanced, where television and cinema still shows a heavy tendency toward white performers. Though racial inequity no longer has legal backing, it is obvious that it still has social backing.
Overall, Marshall’s piece has been met with positive criticism and has been praised for its successful rhetoric in bringing black culture to the forefront. The way he chooses and utilizes the media and the way he structures elements of the painting have a purpose, and that purpose is undoubtedly expressed in Great America.
One source analyzes the visual choices made by Marshall in Great America. They refer to Marshall’s work as a “traditional approach” to depict the slave era and Middle Passage, as its style is “reminiscent of traditional Afro-Caribbean art.” Despite this, the representation of the amusement park ride still manages to build a bridge between the traditional and modern (Baucom). A unique observation was the significance of the way the background to the word “WOW” is bright red and dripping, giving it an appearance similar to blood. The cheery word juxtaposed with the goriness of bleeding further ties into the dual-nature of America and how it claims to be a “land of the free” while enslaving people.
Though only commenting on Great America specifically in a small side note, Petra Frank-Witt’s examination of Marshall’s motivations behind all of his artwork provides insight into his goals in creating Great America as well. The Black Arts Movement is constantly referred to throughout the article, and the movement is clearly instrumental in providing fuel for Marshall’s art. His goal is to move black culture from the outskirts of society’s eyesight to a direct view. It is said that Marshall has “contributed greatly to acquainting the mainstream with the culture of the marginalised,” and thus he has been successful in achieving his main goal.
Charles Rowell’s interview examines another one of Marshall’s projects, Lost Boys, and in so doing it provides a more personal take on Marshall’s motivations and inspirations for his work. Marshall comments on whether he is trying to build on traditions, and how he believes that modern artists “inherit… the stylistic and conceptual developments that artists from previous generations have handed down.” Rowell comments on how Marshall’s work is conversational, actively making the black figures he includes so that they can be identified with in order to oppose those that negatively represent or “maliciously distort” black people in the traditional American way.
Another interview has Marshall comment on Great America specifically, allowing him to explain certain aspects of the painting, such as why the people in the boat are so dark. While going back and forth with Marshall, the interviewer, Tracy Zwick, commends Marshall’s ability to “create paintings that are captivating on their own terms and also readable for their myriad meanings.” Marshall also remarks that his technique can be considered “amalgamation” in that he brings together multiple styles in order to tell a story. This can be seen in Great America, where collage and acrylic are combined.
Baucom, Ian, and Dubois, Laurent. “Kerry James Marshall, ‘Great America.’” The Black Atlantic, spring 2014. Accessed 3 Oct. 2017.
Collins, Lisa G., and Crawford, Margo N. New Thoughts on the Black Arts Movement. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006.
Frank-Witt, Petra. “Kerry James Marshall.” Third Text, vol. 30, no. 5-6, 2016, pp. 388-402. Taylor & Francis Online.
“Kerry James Marshall | nga.” National Gallery of Art. 16 Jan. 2014, https://www.nga.gov/audio-video/video/ kjm-nga.html.
Klein, Herbert S. The middle passage: comparative studies in the Atlantic slave trade. Princeton University Press, 1978.
Marshall, Kerry James. “Great America.” 1994. National Gallery of Art, 20 Jan. 2011, https://www.nga.gov/Collection/artist-info.35534.html.
Rowell, Charles H. “An Interview with Kerry James Marshall.” Callaloo, vol. 21, no. 1, winter 1998, pp. 263-272. Project Muse.
Zwick, Tracy. “Storytelling: An Interview with Kerry James Marshall.” Art in America, 3 Sep. 2013. Accessed 4 Oct. 2017.
Marshall, Kerry James, Terrie Sultan, and Arthur Jafa. Kerry James Marshall. HN Abrams, 2000.
Neal, Larry. “The black arts movement.” The Drama Review: TDR (1968): 29-39.
Patton, Sharon F. African-American Art. Oxford History of Art, 1998.
Thomas, Hugh. The slave trade: The story of the Atlantic slave trade: 1440-1870. Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Keywords: Great America, Kerry James Marshall, African-American culture, Middle Passage, slave ship, Black Arts Movement