Claiming Privilege

Four African-American figurative artists from Detroit claim their place in art history


The official likenesses of Barack Obama, with its carefully rendered floral background, and of Michelle Obama, her face rendered in grisaille atop a bold and colorful swirl of skirt, could only have been painted by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, respectively. These two African-American artists realize the political potential of the official portrait, breathing new life into that musty, fusty genre. They aren’t alone, though. Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, Faith Ringgold, Wangechi Mutu and Amoako Moafo are just a few contemporary black artists who mine various corners in the figurative traditions of art history to tell their story. Now four of Detroit’s emerging artists of color, Mario Moore, Taurus Burns, Sydney G. James and Tylonn Sawyer, are adding their personal virtuosic methods to the trend, employing the visual vocabulary of establishment portraiture to subvert the genre for their own purposes.

Mario Moore

Mario Moore is the most established of the four, with work recently acquired by Princeton University, Detroit Institute of Arts and the Studio Museum in Harlem. In contrast to public, celebratory works by Kehinde Wiley, Moore concentrates on the humanity and vulnerability of his subjects.

His self-portrait, The Student’s Dream, exemplifies this intimate approach, as well as showcasing his knowledge and use of art historical tropes to communicate personal meaning. Moore relates this painting to a predictive dream involving his surgery for a benign brain tumor in 2015. The large-scale canvas makes apparent reference, both in subject matter and in its use of light, to 19th century paintings by Thomas Eakins of publicly held medical demonstrations. As in Eakins’s The Agnew Clinic, anonymous figures in doctors’ coats stand in conference over the prone body of the artist. The patient is lying, fully conscious but immobile, facing the viewer, his expression difficult to read. Rather than a public arena, the scene seems to be a domestic setting, yet it appears to be staged. The large white dog, an enigmatic presence and occasionally recurring image in Moore’s work, rests under the examination table. In the foreground of the painting, a skull rests on a stool; it both refers to the genre of vanitas painting and adds an element of foreboding to the mood of the artwork.

Moore’s artist residency at Princeton University in 2019 provided the inspiration for his recent exhibition in Princeton’s Hurley Gallery, “The Work of Several Lifetimes.” Drawing on his own background as a blue collar worker and in tribute to his father’s experience as a security guard at the Detroit Institute of Art, Moore chose models drawn from the anonymous black workers at Princeton who serve the food, clean the halls and maintain the operations of the school. The portraits depend on both their large scale and their adaptation of the conventions of official portraiture for their considerable power. For his 8-foot tall painting of Valeria Sykes, Moore placed the dining hall worker next to her prized red sports car, posed against an idyllic landscape, confident and comfortably dressed. The impact of the portraits is enhanced by their context; the pieces hang in prominent locations at the university that are customarily reserved for benefactors and socially prominent graduates.

Sydney G. James

Portrait artist, illustrator and muralist Sydney G. James’s relationship with her subjects is an intimate one, like Moore’s, though with a distinctive feminist twist. She often paints her female friends and family, regally seated and facing the viewer. In James’s portraits, the women claim their space on the sofa and in the foreground rather than in the background, where women of color have often been required to serve and stand. Her recent exhibition at Playground Detroit, “Sit Down Somewhere,” features outsized head and shoulder portraits of friends and family. In these likenesses, James favors a kind of double-image portrait, where the subject is contained within the silhouette of an African American public figure meaningful to the sitter. In Oprah Said That I Get A…, a larger-than-life-size face of her good friend, Candice Fortman, confronts the viewer, bounded by the outline of the eponymous, gesturing celebrity. The  interior image is slightly distorted, as if seen through a fisheye lens. The two images co-exist in dialogue, surrounded by light-filled white.

In addition to painting portraits, James remains active as a muralist, nationally and internationally, with murals completed in Detroit, New Orleans, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Honolulu, Ghana and, most recently, Sierra Leone. James maintains that the work in her murals is directly related to the pieces she produces in the studio, although the scale is much larger. Her personal relationships fuel the work, and each mural abounds with allusions to her fellow creatives. Her 2016 wall painting in Detroit for Murals in the Market, Black List, is a case in point. The young woman in the painting engages the viewer with her direct gaze while holding a sign that reads, “The definitive list of everything that will keep you safe as a black wo-man– body in America,” quoted from a poem by Detroit writer Scheherazade W. Parrish. The bird tugging at her hair is an oblique reference to her friend, artist Rashaun Rucker, and his totem, the rock pigeon. A grisaille mask typical of Tylonn Sawyer’s portraiture peeks out from her breast pocket. By tying her work so closely to that of her fellow artists, James makes images that engage the public while remaining deeply personal.

Tylonn Sawyer

In contrast to Moore’s and James’s emotionally intimate portraiture, Tylonn Sawyer’s monumental paintings are presentational in nature. They often reference formal black and white group photographs, but with the subjects’ identities masked (literally) by handheld likenesses, in grisaille, of famous black celebrities and historic civil rights figures. The meaning of this masking is ambiguous and changes subtly with each painting. In DNA, anonymous figures pose frontally in a row, in water up to their thighs. They hold paper masks of prominent African Americans in front of their faces. An inverted American flag hangs in the background. The meaning here is difficult to parse. Are these individuals hiding behind their famous role models? Obscured by them? Celebrating them? Although a definitive meaning remains elusive, the ambiguity yields resonance appropriate to any discussion of race in America.

In Aretha (Three Graces), three obviously individual women dressed in white each hold a mask of Aretha Franklin in front of their faces. The fact that the figures are holding the masks on sticks seems to indicate a willful act on their part, but to what end, once again, one cannot be sure. The color of each mask is leached out, as if the true identities of the black subjects are obscured by a mask of whiteness that renders them publicly visible.

Another recurring and multi-valent visual strategy in Sawyer’s portraiture is his use of the collapsed figure. In Post Hope, a canvas depicting the fallen, life-sized figure of Barack Obama, the subject is face down with his (white) mask discarded, lying on an American flag. The white stripes in the flag contain photographic images of racial strife, Ku Klux Klan rallies, civil rights demonstrations and the like, from the archives of the Smithsonian Institution. Is he exhausted? Defeated? Dead? We don’t know. In another painting, White on White, the collapsed figure of the artist himself reappears multiple times. His face obscured and dressed in white, Sawyer lies top of a low relief depicting the Confederate monument at Stone Mountain, Georgia. The memorial, completed in 1972, is a fairly recent commemoration of historic figures from the Confederacy, as well as a subtle celebration of Jim Crow. Sawyer’s virtuosic handling of the crumpled white clothing worn by the fallen figure and its twisted posture recall Mannerist paintings of the saints. The draped bodies obscure, yet don’t—or can’t—obliterate the figures beneath.

Taurus Burns

Taurus Burns shares with Tylonn Sawyer and Sydney James a preoccupation with historical figures and celebrities and how they relate to the artists themselves, though he views them from a slightly different angle. His mixed-race background renders him uncomfortable with the categorization of humans as members of distinctive groups; where others see black and white, Burns sees gray. In a recent interview, he describes himself as living at the uneasy intersection of dual identities. Working through that unease forms the core of his art practice.

In his self-portrait Touched, Burns grapples with the claim each racial identity has on his loyalties. Ulysses Grant grips his right shoulder, Robert E. Lee his left arm. He is surrounded—literally—by a pantheon of significant cultural figures: Ralph Ellison and Jacob Lawrence, Huey P. Newton and Richard Pryor, to name a few. At the edges of the composition on either side, white-hooded Ku Klux Klan figures lurk. The blank sketchbook in his hand declares his ambivalence. Burns is flanked by two ravens, meant to express his uneasy sense of personal danger. He says, “I wanted the painting to convey [my] fear of falling victim to hatred and the anxiety of living in a racially polarized country.”

Burns’s The Shooting of Philando Castile marks the artist’s progression from the personal to the polemical. The artist describes the killing as a catalyst in his thinking about the direction of his work, toward more overt political expression. The artist has chosen a pentagonal canvas that roughly echoes the shape of a car window. The figure of Castile on the left, almost out of the picture frame of the composition and covered in blood, assumes the supine posture of the martyred Christ, and represents any number of renaissance pietas. At first, one hardly sees the hand on the right that shoots the gun, killing him.

The story of modern and contemporary art in the 20th and 21st centuries has been one of artists discarding established figurative traditions in search of new forms and methods. Now, young African-American artists are energetically engaged in retrieving the figurative baby that might have been thrown out with the art historical bath water, turning it to their own overtly political and social ends. They are appropriating for themselves the highly skilled techniques of realistic figurative painting to demand cultural credibility for their social mission to place racial identity and equality at the center of the contemporary art world’s consciousness.


K.A. Letts is a working artist ( and art blogger ( She has shown her paintings and drawing in galleries and museums in Toledo, Detroit, Chicago and New York. She writes frequently about art in the Detroit area.

Mario Moore, The Visit (Valeria), 2019, 0il on linen, 96 x 66 inches. Image courtesy of the artist and David Klein Gallery.

Sydney G. James, Oprah Said I Get a … , 2019, acrylic on canvas, 64” x 54”. Photo courtesy Playground Detroit

Mario Moore, The Student’s Dream, 2017, oil on canvas, 80” x 68”. Photo courtesy David Klein Gallery.

Sydney G. James, Black List, 2016, mural near Cutter's Bar and Grill in Eastern Market, Detroit for Murals in the Market. Photo courtesy Murals in the Market.

Top: Tylonn Sawyer, DNA, 2019, charcoal, collage, gold leaf on paper. Photo courtesy N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art.


Bottom: Tylonn Sawyer, White on White, 2019, oil on canvas, 144” x 60”. Photo courtesy N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art.

Taurus Burns, Touched, 2018, oil on panel, 46” diameter. Photo courtesy Taurus Burns.

Taurus Burns, The Shooting of Philando Castile, 2018, oil on wood, 30” x 40”. Photo courtesy Taurus Burns.



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