Artist Perspective by Monique Steele, Reframing Portraits

The Artist's Perspective, written by Monique Steele. Monique is a Jamaican-born illustrator currently residing in the small pocket of reality in-between time and space. A digital artist, her work normally consists of bright colours, strong line work, and features subjects such as empowered women in history, fun adventures, and magic….

From the moment you start learning about important art in history, as a person of colour, one thing becomes glaringly obvious and you inevitably begin to wonder, "Hey where are all the people of colour?” The greatest renowned pieces in history that even the decidedly museum-averse of us are aware of, nearly all feature white faces. The most studied and the most lauded, the most “beautiful”, the most “history-defining”, the highest of high arts are all overwhelmingly white.

There are historical precedents for this of course and I do, more or less, know how we got to this point but it does tap into a sentiment that I, for one, have found myself having to contend with even in non-art spaces.

When it comes to period dramas and fantastical works that take place in eras based on certain points in history, for instance, I would often hear people say things like “diversity wouldn’t be very historically accurate” as a get-out-of-jail-free card. As if a world with dragons in a vaguely Renaissance-inspired time, would be so unbelievable if a few people with a bit of melanin were to stumble across the screen. Then there’s the fact that beauty standards skew overwhelmingly white in a lot of spaces and while today it’s marginally better than in previous eras it’s still not the best. And the arts have a lot to do with who and what we have always defined as beautiful. If art has the power to give us a glimpse of what life looked like but also what is the definition of beauty throughout history then not having people of colour in the most celebrated artworks seems like a bit of an oversight.

When I started my portrait project I really wanted to recontextualise some of these famous works with these things in mind. I wanted to reconsider not only the beauty standard at play but also reframe them to reflect the universe I know, to show the connective tissue between the art then and my art now. Making them self-portraits was a no-brainer. Frida Kahlo said it best about her own self-portraits, "I paint my own reality” so that’s what I did. In a way, I wanted to update the original works and show them in not just a more modern light but one where a black figure (myself) was the main focus and not relegated to the sidelines of an important piece or even as a figure easily painted out of the original, like the recently restored “Bélizaire and the Frey Children” painting now owned by the MET. I wanted to centre myself in a space that previously wouldn’t have allowed for me to be there and in a way say “Hey I’m important and worthy of admiration too!” I quarrel with myself a teeny bit sometimes about whether this is just an exercise in vanity but to pull from Frida Kahlo yet again “I paint whatever passes through my head without any other consideration.” And you know what, sometimes painting one’s self is great for the self-esteem so not gonna argue with that.

Monique Steele

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