“In the Language of my Captor”

Gary Burnley at Elizabeth Houston Gallery, NYC



Every picture tells a story, even if it’s several pictures combined into one to tell a bigger story. At least that’s how it was with Gary Burnley’s exhibition titled “In the Language of my Captor.” Burnley’s show, held earlier this year at the Elizabeth Houston Gallery on the Lower East Side in Manhattan, consisted of 20 photographic collages of different people from different points in time. These images range from the iconic, like the Mona Lisa, to his personal history as a Black American.

In these works, Burnley uses modern-day photographs of Black people as a means to assert their place in history in a context similar to that of the well-known practice of wealthy 18th and 19th century Europeans to sit for portraits. He’s giving them the same opportunity as their “captors,” so to speak.

The title of the exhibition comes from a poem of the same name by Shane McCrae. In it he writes:


I cannot talk about the place I came from

I do not want it to exist

The way I knew it

In the language of my captor.


About his work, Burnley has said, “It’s not so much that Black Americans inhabit a different world from their white counterparts, but that they live in the same world differently.”

Gary Burnley, 71, was born and raised in St. Louis. His work has been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions throughout the United States and Europe since the early 1980s. He received a BFA from Washington University in St. Louis and an MFA from Yale University.

Burnley has a particular interest in transit art with notable public projects that include the design of a New York City subway station in 1983. He also was one of the leading designers of St. Louis’s light rail transportation system completed in 1994.

In this recent New York show, one notable work was titled Smile #2 and featured a close-up view of the Mona Lisa cast in a very pale shade of blue. Right next to the subject’s iconic half smile is a similar type of smile on a Black woman staring straight ahead with a hopeful, determined look in her eyes.

The image of the Black woman is shown in a royal blue light and is juxtaposed over the Mona Lisa. It is not a whole image, but one that has circular cut-outs scattered in various spots situated in a way that reveals key components of Mona Lisa’s expression while also revealing key components of the Black woman’s expression.

A similar work, Kenisha, consists of a woman created with several juxtaposed images, including that of Marie Antoinette. The character in the collage has the 18th century French queen’s elaborate hairdo, jewelry, and gown. Here, Burnley is putting the Black woman on the same level as Marie Antoinette who symbolized great wealth and indulged herself in a luxurious, lavish lifestyle and treated her inferiors poorly. The juxtaposed toothy grin of a Black woman mimics the queen’s confident smile, while circular cutouts revealing other parts of the underlying image against a backdrop of distant hills.



Left: Gary Burnley, Kenisha, 2019. Framed unique archival inkjet photo and mixed media physical collage, 22 x 17 inches. Right: Gary Burnley, Edward, 2019. Framed unique archival inkjet photo and mixed media physical collage, 22 x 17 inches. Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Houston Gallery.


Burnley makes this same point with Edward who is modeled after Shakespeare’s King Edward III. The collage consists of an image of the lower half of Edward’s face revealing his chin and beard as well as his lacy white collar. The rest of the image, from the nose up, is that of a Black man. These two juxtaposed images make up one authoritative character portrayed by two different races, putting the Black man on par with White people in power.

In an untitled collage, the forehead and eyes of a white 18th century young woman with curly brown locks and a thin, pink headband and royal blue formal gown is juxtaposed with a black and white photograph of a Black woman with curly dark hair and a broad smile also wearing a formal dress, (but in a more 20th century style) and a corsage of white roses on her left shoulder. Her photograph is placed in a way to connect directly to the features of the white woman, altogether conveying an image of cheerful innocence.



Left: Gary Burnley, Untitled, 2018. Framed unique archival inkjet photo and mixed media physical collage, 22 x 17 inches. Right: Gary Burnley, Knock, Knock, 2019, Framed unique archival inkjet photo and mixed media physical collage, 39 x 32 inches. Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Houston Gallery.


Burnley completely transforms a silhouette from 1796, the only known silhouette of an enslaved female from that era, and Seymour Joseph Guy’s 1870 painting Story of the Golden Locks into one piece with Knock, Knock. In Burnley’s version, he uses the young woman in her bedroom from the Guy painting but right in front of her is the silhouette titled Flora, which morphs into a shadow of the girl in the painting.

One of the most poignant works in the show is Burnley’s Self-Portrait in which he uses a well-known photo of 14-year-old Emmett Till who was brutally and publicly murdered in Mississippi in 1955 where Jim Crow laws were strongly practiced and enforced. Till was lynched for supposedly talking to a White woman in a grocery store which was prohibited at the time. Unfortunately, Till was neither the first nor last person of color to face such horrific treatment by Whites and more than 60 years later it’s still going on. Burnley takes the photograph of Till and covers Till’s eyes and mouth with his own. Burnley’s point here is that Emmett Till could have very easily been him as he is subject to the same type of abuse just because they share the same skin color.

With this series, Burnley does a fine job conveying to the viewer the timely and powerful theme that Black Americans should have and should have had a more prominent and positive place in history. While there are plenty of Black heroes such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King Jr., Black Americans are also still remembered by too many people as being inferior. It’s a theme that sadly continues to this day with cases such as George Floyd’s murder which is an example of how much differently Blacks are treated by police. However, with the Black Lives Matter protests and with more positive black role models such as Barack Obama and inauguration speaker and poet Amanda Gorman, that inferiority is starting to fade.


Alison Martin is a lifelong resident of New York City and has a great appreciation for the arts. While living in Manhattan, Alison takes time to enjoy its cultural offerings and takes advantage of exploring the latest exhibitions at the city’s many museums, galleries, and other art related venues.



Gary Burnley, Smile #2, 2019. Framed unique archival inkjet photo and mixed media physical collage, 22 x 17 inches. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Houston Gallery.

Gary Burnley, Self-Portrait, 2016. Framed unique archival inkjet photo and mixed media physical collage, 22 x 17 inches. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Houston Gallery.




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