Amy Sherald's gouache portraits of black women pay tribute to womanism

Amy Sherald Untitled (Detail) 2020 Gouache on paper 38.1 x 55.8 cm / 15 x 22 in © Amy Sherald Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

In her latest exhibition, Womanist is to Feminist as Purple is to Lavender, Amy Sherald shares five new small-scale portraits of black women made over the course of the pandemic.

Taking as its title a widely cited statement by celebrated novelist, poet, and activist Alice Walker, the miniature artworks, just 11 by 7 inches in size, consider 'womanism' – a form of feminism that acknowledges women of colour's contribution to society. It's a term used by some in distinction to the term feminism and its association with white women.

Building on that sentiment, we also see Sherald return to the medium of gouache for the first time since she was a child. With delicate pigment and her signature use of grisaille to depict skin tone, we see portrayals of black women at ease, staring confidently and directly at us, while enjoying some leisure time. It's something that traditionally hasn't been seen in American portrait paintings, where for too long black men, women, and families have been excluded.

Each depicted subject is individual yet anonymous, plucked from the artist's imagination or inspired by images found online. "I always want the work to be a resting place, one where you can let your guard down among figures you understand," says Sherald of her work.

In one painting, the barefoot sitter wears a vibrant yellow polka dot dress as she sits on her bicycle. In another, the central figure leans congenially against the back of a bright orange armchair, legs crossed and arms relaxed. "While their clothing situates them in contemporary culture, Sherald's subjects become timeless: the grisaille of their faces and the white backgrounds against which they are shown, protect their privacy and mystery," says the Gallery. "The viewer is thus required to meet the artist’s subjects actively and to 'negotiate' their own conceived notions of Black American life."

By making black Americans the subject and story of her art, and by giving them dominant space by themselves in her compositions, they are rightfully placed at the centre of the American story.

Available to view online from 19 October at Hauser & Wirth, it's a prelude to Sherald's first West Coast solo show which will open at Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles this February and present new full-scale paintings.

Amy Sherald  Untitled (Detail) 2020 Gouache on paper 27.9 x 19.1 cm / 11 x 7 1/2 in © Amy Sherald Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Amy Sherald Untitled (Detail) 2020 Gouache on paper 27.9 x 19.1 cm / 11 x 7 1/2 in © Amy Sherald Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: JJ Geiger

Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: JJ Geiger