November 16, 2018

Kerry James Marshall and the African Diaspora

by Troy Johnson


Installation view

Kerry James Marshall has tasked himself with reconciling an almost exclusively white history of Western art with unequivocal and unapologetic blackness. His works consistently address the push and pull African American artists face within the diaspora. I have chosen two pieces from Rennie Museum’s Kerry James Marshall: Collected Works exhibition that articulate this experience expertly: one, a painting, and the other, an installation. It is perhaps Marshall’s paintings that have brought most of the guests to the museum as he is referred to most often as a master painter. Even I thought the exhibition would consist of primarily, if not entirely, paintings when I first heard his work would be on show. Once inside the space; however, it becomes clear that the strength of the exhibition lies in the interaction between the various mediums Marshall chooses to work with. By not limiting himself to just one, Marshall is able to engage with a broader scope of the history of Western art. Both pieces speak to the African diaspora in complex ways. Perhaps more importantly, both pieces address struggles relating to black identity without portraying African Americans as victims. Through this exchange between painting and sculpture, Marshall depicts the African American body not simply as it has formed through loss, but as it has grown and thrived from one generation to the next within the diaspora.


Kerry James Marshall
Wake, 2003-2005

As the only installation amongst eight paintings in the room, Wake (2003-2005) has a way of commanding attention. The installation piece comprised of a sailboat model on a black Plexiglas base is one of those rare works that feel heavy. It weighs on your body and mind even after you’ve left the museum. The sailboat and its base are covered in about a thousand plastic medallions in various colours. As you approach the piece, it becomes clear that each medallion features a portrait of a black figure. Marshall has been continuously adding to the boat and its base, incorporating gold chains and fishing net to accommodate the number of medallions it now carries. This ever-growing nature of the work speaks to the way in which Africans have proliferated in North America in the wake of slavery; paralleling the growth of life within black identity and tracing the shift from African to African American.

In conversations with Marshall during the May installation, the artist recalled his appreciation for Nkondi figures, wood-carved religious idols from the Congo that are believed to house spirits. Nails are driven into the figures to awaken these housed spirits for various purposes. These figures, in turn, bear the markings of the societies that use them, eventually adorned with hundreds of nails.

As an artist working within the African diaspora, Marshall is not part of a culture that uses Nkondi figures in its visual language. Perhaps cognizant of a history of art that has long fetishized the visual language of Africa, Marshall’s art borrows from African art in a way that differs from artists like Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, who sought to exoticize non-Western aesthetics from a colonial perspective. One can see the influence of Nkondi sculpture and its process of purposeful accumulation amongst Wake’s ornamentation. The installation continues to evolve and, in doing so, it bears the markers of social change. The legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, as Marshall has put it, finds itself in the creation of a population that has thrived in spite of the violence to which it has been subject. By using a medium and materials to which he feels more connected, Marshall disrupts the colonial gaze long employed by artists in the Western canon of Art History.

Around the corner, X-Man (1989) hangs on a grey wall in the museum’s smallest room. A black body is simply rendered on unstretched canvas with the words “X-MAN” in bold typeface above his head. A few years prior to this painting’s completion Marshall executed a seminal series of black-on-black paintings, including Invisible Man (1986), which is hung in the same room. These works engage with the idea of invisibility relating to the black body. X-Man, however, is distinguishable by its medium: its unstretched canvas is reminiscent of both Renaissance tapestry and burlap feed sacks. The work features a black figure on a monochromatic background of red and green—recalling the Pan-African flag. The entire image is covered with a painted white veil, signifying perhaps a sense of erasure or white-washing.


Kerry James Marshall
X-Man , 1989

The figure of the X-Man embodies the African diaspora. Treated as chattel, enslaved Africans were divorced from their respective cultures. They were unable to read or write English; therefore, they had to sign all documents with an ‘X’. The ‘X’ functions both as an unknown variable and an identifier for bodies within the African diaspora. This is exemplified by figures like Malcolm X who have decided to disown their surnames, names given to their ancestors by their owners, in favour of the ‘X’. Often, to operate within the African diaspora is to exist visually outside the racial majority while feeling culturally separate from one’s African heritage. However, Marshall uses an unmistakable comic book style typeface for X-Man, championing the body to which it refers. To be black is to constantly reaffirm one’s identity against a steady influx of labels and stereotypes.

W.E.B. DuBois refers to African Americans as “gifted with second-sight”, meaning black individuals see themselves primarily through the eyes of the white majority. He elaborates, “it is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity”. * To behold X-Man as a person of colour is to see one’s self through the eyes of those who regard you with fear. Stark black bodies bring up an extremely fraught history of representation. Jim Crow depictions of the black body in its satires and minstrels come to mind almost instantly with Marshall’s early black figures. As a result, the work is distinctly self-aware. Marshall leans in to blackness as caricature, perhaps as a form of catharsis. This reminds us to not simply consider the lack of representation afforded to the black body, but to weigh instead the significance of the representation that does exist.

Marshall speaks to the civil rights movement, and the subjugation of African Americans more generally, with a familiarity that comes from lived experience. Both pieces portray the loss that has created the African diaspora while maintaining a strong sense of empowerment. To say Marshall’s art is optimistic would not do justice to the nuance with which he works, but there is a distinct effort made to avoid depicting black bodies as casualties or martyrs. Marshall thus demonstrates the power of recognizing violence and injustice endured by black bodies without portraying these bodies as victims; masterfully acknowledging history while relentlessly seeking progress.

*Du Bois, W.E.B. “The Souls of Black Folk”. Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1903. Print.

September 28, 2018

Rennie Museum Book Club Returns!

Every Tuesday, October 9 – November 6
6:00- 7:15 PM
Register HERE

Rennie Museum is excited to announce the second installment of the Rennie Museum Book Club! In conjunction with our Kerry James Marshall: Collected Works exhibition, we invite literature and art enthusiasts to immerse themselves in the science-fiction classic Kindred by African-American writer Octavia Butler. Every Tuesday, from October 9 to November 6, participants will engage in the reading and discussion of Butler’s fantastical account of a late 20th-century African-American woman confronting her struggle with the bondage of her ancestry. Through Butler’s time-warping critique of American history, participants will develop insights into the ways Kerry James Marshall has embedded himself into the history of modern art.

Rennie Museum Book Club is FREE and open to the public. Space is limited- book your spot now! Members will be issued a copy of the book courtesy of Rennie Museum. Snacks and refreshments will be provided.

August 22, 2018

Exhibition walkthrough of ‘Kerry James Marshall: Collected Works’ at Rennie Museum, June 2 – November 3, 2017.

Exhibition Walkthrough: Kerry James Marshall from Rennie Collection on Vimeo.

VIDEO & EDIT: Milena Salazar

August 16, 2018

Kerry James Marshall on Black identity, history and the process of making work. Interviewed on the occasion of ‘Kerry James Marshall: Collected Works’ exhibited at Rennie Museum, June 2 – November 3, 2018.

Kerry James Marhsall at Rennie Museum from Rennie Collection on Vimeo.

VIDEO & EDIT: Milena Salazar

August 2, 2018

We’ve launched a book club!

Every Tuesday, August 14 – September 4
6:00- 7:15 PM
Registration for the book club is now closed.

We are excited to announce the launch of the Rennie Museum Book Club! In conjunction with our Kerry James Marshall: Collected Works exhibition, we invite book and art enthusiasts to investigate the impact of literature on art and culture, freedom, and injustice through the dystopian classic Fahrenheit 451 by American author Ray Bradbury. From August 14 to September 4, participants will meet every Tuesday atop Rennie Museum’s sculpture garden to immerse themselves in Bradbury’s fictional world. Through Bradbury’s literary lens, participants will develop insights into the ways literature has profoundly impacted the artistic mastery of Kerry James Marshall.

Rennie Museum Book Club is FREE and open to the public. RSVPs are first come first served and limited to two individuals per reservation. Members will be issued a copy of the book courtesy of Rennie Museum. Snacks and refreshments will be provided.

July 26, 2018

Abandon Everything

by Callum Coogan


Yoko Ono
MEND PIECE, Andrea Rosen Gallery,
New York City version
, 1966/2015

I sat with milk glue in my hand for the first five-or-so minutes, not sure where to start. I debated whether it was more appropriate to begin with a different material, or if I was supposed to “mend” something else. I read the wall text again: “mend with wisdom, mend with love. It will mend the earth at the same time.” A semi-spiritual artist, I’ve learned to be wary of seemingly ethereal gestures in art, as these gestures tend to distract us from the intentions they wish to reveal. I spent the next few minutes realizing how this was all a trick– that the glue, rubber bands, tape, twine, thread, and shattered cups before me were there to keep my hands busy while I fought through my own pessimism. I imagined Yoko Ono herself was laughing at me from the other side of East Pender Street, and for a brief moment, I surveyed the sidewalks. (She wasn’t there.)

My eyes returned to the white table where I was still seated. I looked at the long pile of broken coffee cups that stretched along the table’s surface. Like a cat with a string, I began to play. I took one broken handle, taped it to the inside of a small fraction of a saucer, which I treated as a base, and with two larger fragments flanking the sides, I made wings. Had the handle not been so long, it would have looked more like a plane than a bird. In a fleeting moment of symbolic association, notions of world peace flashed in my mind. Once I held this dove-shaped assemblage in my hand, I realized what was really happening.

Mend Piece is a conceptual work of art that has lived many iterations since its inception over 50 years ago. MEND PIECE, Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York City version (1966/2015), allows each participant to interact with the provided glue, rubber bands, tape, twine, thread, and shattered cups and invites them to enjoy a cup of coffee at the adjacent espresso bar afterwards. At Rennie Museum, visitors were also encouraged to watch a brief video montage and peruse several publications on Yoko Ono at their leisure. The overall experience created an environment in which guests started to share their sentiments with one another, traded information about their processes, and came to some kind of conclusion about what they had just experienced. In a way, their conversations became entangled with the art itself, elevating the art into an intangible, intermediary realm.


Yoko Ono
MEND PIECE, Andrea Rosen Gallery,
New York City version
, 1966/2015

A crucial member of the Fluxus Movement that flourished during the late 1960s and early 70s, Yoko Ono has always been an intermediary artist. Her art was born out of performance events that are poetic, ambiguous, and rooted in anti-art tendencies. As George Maciunas wrote in his 1963 Fluxus Manifesto, “Fluxus promotes a revolutionary flood and tide in art”. It pushes for living art and endorses democratic art: a “non-art reality to be fully grasped by all peoples”, instead of just critics, dilettantes, and professionals*. Yoko Ono’s art is a social art**. It’s an art that relies on its participants to realize concepts, which struggle to be bound by a singular object. It asks, “what will come out of us? Would there be anything?”*** By utilizing the physical act of construction as a distraction to generate cognitive action, Mend Piece provides an opportunity to self-engage, and to self-construct. While mending, each participant is reminded that they are in the presence of strangers, who, collectively, make their own individual reparations. A connection can be made between the coming together of disparate human characters, bound by the table and chairs, and the diverse materials with which they work. This entire event represents a fusion, a homogeneity, between art and life, where the act of mending oneself is reverberated by a community that mends together. Mend Piece has been described by the artist as a wish piece, “It is an attempt to create a symbiotic mending between what you are mending – maybe a broken cup – and what you wish to mend, like the world.”****

While encompassing the world-view of Wabi-Sabi, Mend Piece also borrows from kintsugi, a Japanese art in which fragments of ceramic are bonded by lacquers infused with precious metals. The underlying philosophy of kintsugi recognizes rupture and restoration as part of an object’s history and imparts a preciousness to objects that are flawed and imperfect. For Mend Piece, Ono chose to replace these precious metals with humble crafting materials. Confronted by the impossibility of repairing a cup back to its previous state, each participant is then tasked with transforming the pieces into something new. Through silent acquiescence, the process of reparation becomes an internal one, where participants view themselves, rather than the cups, as flawed, imperfect, and in need of repair.

After taking part in the transformative process initiated by Yoko Ono’s Mend Piece, I learned that the pessimism I initially felt was a distraction, one that prevented me from engaging with and believing in the healing power of art. I was bewildered by the grand gesture of mending the earth with wisdom and love, a task that seemed impossible given the limited time and resources. I found myself reluctant to engage in something greater than myself.

Through one on one discussions with participants as a museum attendant, I noticed that the pessimism I felt was common. More importantly, I realized that once visitors allowed the mending process to unfold, they too let go of their initial reluctance. Those who, like me, embraced the absurd and allowed humour to guide them, constructed works that reflected this attitude. The resulting objects were reminiscent of abstract faces, make-shift dreamcatchers, abstract sculptures, and even a few musical instruments. Others, who took upon themselves the daunting task of piecing together almost-perfect cups found it frustrating to excavate the pile of broken ceramics. One guest made a point to describe how this approach made her feel like a grave robber: the taping and wrapping that was needed in order to bring new life to something resulted in a kind-of Franken-cup.


Yoko Ono
MEND PIECE, Andrea Rosen Gallery,
New York City version
, 1966/2015

The gallery attendants were surprised to see how many visitors were willing to work together in their efforts to create their cups, despite differences in approach. One such group, comprised of eight total strangers, managed to work as a team to unite all of their cups with a single strand of burlap twine. Another group, split into pairs, shared their processes as well as their materials in order to make works that physically supported one another.

Regardless of an individual’s ability to work in a group or their need for solitude, Mend Piece provides an opportunity to transform our inner healing potential into the living world. Life can get chaotic- at this point, what art can offer is an absence of chaos; “a vacuum through which [we] are led to a state of complete relaxation of the mind”.***** Through an exercise of reparation that is both physical and cognitive, Mend Piece offers a moment to reflect on personal manifestations. Furthermore, by asking participants to leave their mended works behind, Mend Piece encourages each of us to detach ourselves from what we considered ours, and also rejects that our mended cups have reached finality. In a brief letter, To the Wesleyan People (1966), Ono writes:

“The world of construction seems to be the most tangible, and therefore final. This made me nervous. I started to wonder if it were really so. Isn’t a construction a beginning of a thing like a seed? Isn’t it a segment of a larger totality, like an elephant’s tail? Isn’t it something just about to emerge – not quite structured – never quite structured…”******

Clear your mind. Forget the past. Let go of everything as much as possible. Dispose of all the things that make you unfocused, and yes, even a little pessimistic. Imagine how that might be.

*Maciunas, George. Fluxus Manifesto. 1963.
**Munroe, Alexandra. “Why War? Yoko By Yoko At the Serpentine.” Yoko Ono: To the Light. Serpentine Gallery, 2012. Page 9. Print
***Ono, Yoko. “To The Wesleyan People.” Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012. Page 860. Print.
****Robinson, John. “High Concept.” The Guardian, April 23, 2005. Web.
*****Ono, Yoko. “To The Wesleyan People.” Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012. Page 860. Print.
******Ono, Yoko. “To The Wesleyan People.” Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012. Page 860. Print.

July 16, 2018

Join us for Family Pride Day!

Saturday, August 4, 2018
1:00 PM – 5:00 PM
Registration for Family Pride Day is now closed

Rennie Museum welcomes families with individuals that identify as LGBTQI+ and/or Two-Spirit, as well as their allies to its very first Family Pride Day! Join an interactive tour of our Kerry James Marshall: Collected Works exhibition. Enjoy refreshments on our rooftop sculpture garden as your children explore gender fluidity and self-expression during Drag Queen Story Hour featuring Gina Tonic. Finish the day with a hands-on art workshop inspired by the festivities of Vancouver Pride Week.

Family Pride Day is FREE and open to families with children who are 5 years of age or older. Snacks and refreshments will be provided. RSVPs are first come first served and limited to two adults per reservation.

June 9, 2018

On May 31, 2018, Rennie Museum hosted a talk by Kerry James Marshall. Maintaining an interdisciplinary approach to art-making, Marshall is perhaps best known for his prowess using classical techniques to re-integrate black figures into the history of painting. As part of the exhibition programming, Marshall took part in the Rennie Speaker Series to give a talk on his extensive practice, his influences and the exhibited works. Watch it below:

Rennie Speaker Series:Kerry James Marshall from Rennie Collection on Vimeo.

VIDEO & EDIT: Focus AV

May 24, 2018

[Newsletter] Rennie Speaker Series Presents: Kerry James Marshall

May 12, 2018

[Newsletter] New Rennie Museum Exhibition: Kerry James Marshall