Kerry James Marshall’s “Black Painting”

Forty-five years ago today on December 4, 1969, Fred Hampton, an African American activist and the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, was shot and killed while sleeping in his bed by eight members of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and Chicago Police Department in an early morning raid. Mark Clark, a member of the Black Panther Party from Peoria and an active member of the NAACP, also in the apartment at the time, was also shot and killed. The raid, which produced no police indictments, is one of the most tragic and controversial events to take place during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

The moments before the killing are captured in Black Painting (2003), a mournful work by artist Kerry James Marshall that features black acrylic paint on black fiberglass. The painting depicts the apartment of Fred Hampton as seen from the backdoor, the location from which police officers fired anywhere from 82 to 99 gunshots.*

The painting itself is nearly indecipherable. Ghosts of dresser drawers and belongings scatter themselves across the dark tableau. Resting on a bedside table is a copy of Angela Y. Davis’s book “If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance,” a book published 2 years after the shooting, but which the artist places here for particular significance. On an opposite nightstand, a pearl necklace hangs from a jewelry stand in the form of a tightly clenched black fist, a symbol and salute of the Black Power movement. A Black Panther flag is hung limply on a corner wall, the words “POWER TO THE PEOPLE…” barely detectable.

The painting – at its very core – is the epitome of darkness. The details are nearly indiscernible, and the black figure lying in bed is a near invisible man, conjuring the title of Ralph Ellison’s famous 1952 novel describing the African American experience of the early 20th century, and a poetic compositional gesture on Marshall’s part. In bed, Hampton has propped himself up by his arm, his head turned as if listening. Is this the moment in which he was first startled, hearing the men break into his apartment? Is this just before the first shots are fired? With Black Painting (2003), Kerry James Marshall brilliantly positions himself as both artist and archivist, using blackness as both medium and subject matter.

Evan Garza, Assistant Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art

Image: Kerry James Marshall, Black Painting, acrylic on fiberglass, loan from private collection, Princeton, New Jersey.

*Ted Gregory, “The Black Panther Raid and the death of Fred Hampton”, Chicago Tribune

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