Q&A: Painter Kerry James Marshall On 'Mastry' And Representing Black People In His Art

Marshall speaks on the importance of financial independence and putting money back into your own work

On this week's episode of "The Stakes," we sat down with painter Kerry James Marshall to discuss his show Mastry, which just finished a run at Metropolitan Museum of Art's Met Breuer building in New York. Marshall talks about the meaning of the spelling of "mastry," the representation of black bodies in his art, and the importance of putting your money back into your work.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Doreen St. Félix: I'd love to hear you talk about Mastry and the misspelling of "mastery." To me, it kind of felt like a visual pun with a lot of meaning behind it. We would love to hear about the notion of "mastry" and how it looks, via the spelling.

Kerry James Marshall: Right. So, you take the conventional definition of a "master." For black folks, you read that through the history of slavery and things like that, in the sense that "mastery" was somebody who had possession of oneself and control over the bodies of others. So there's two aspects of it, which seem to contradict each other on some level. You have a master who's in control of himself but also in control of the bodies of others who have lost the control of themselves. That's the way we think about what it means to be a master.

Before the title of the show, Mastry, I had started to develop a comics project called "Rythm Mastr," and that was the first time I had adopted a different spelling of "mastery," by eliminating the "e" and the "y." So in "Rythm Mastr," not only is the "rhythm" spelled wrong — dropping an "h" — but, in Mastry, I dropped both the "e" and the "y." Part of the reason I wanted to drop the "e" and the "y" was to undercut the implications of control of other peoples' bodies that's associated with the term "master" but preserve a certain idea of self-control, and the ability of somebody to ... implement a regime of power on their own behalf. That's how the spelling arrived.

There's a panel in the early version of the Rythm Mastr project I did called "Dailies," where I put the definitions: I explain why I spell both "rhythm" and "master" the way that I do. In the "master" definition, it has this ... way that I just explained it to you, that I wanted to preserve a certain implication of control but to eliminate the aspect of it that imposed that control on other people.

Thinking about control, you've created a body of work that, when a lot of black viewers see it, they feel intense moments of both recognition and representation, which are a little bit different from each other. Is that a daunting feeling for you? Do you feel a responsibility?

Marshall: Do I feel a responsibility for providing it?

Not necessarily for providing it, but for the possibility that there might be reactions that are intense in that way.

Marshall: Well, I would hope so! I think the fact that I chose to represent those black bodies with the intensity of black that I do already sets it up for a response to the work that could be in the most extreme. There's the possibility of both extremes: there are some people who could experience an extreme repulsion to the body because of the way blackness has been figured in our imaginations and in our consciousness as a kind of position of deprivation — a lack. Lack of agency, lack of power, lack of authority, lack of self-control: I mean, that's sort of how a lot of us understand what it had meant to be black, and that there are black people who flee from the notion that they need to be identified as "black."

Then you have, on the other side of it, this notion, if you think of the Black Power movement from the '60s, '70s, and into the '80s, we have Black Power and "black is beautiful." That declaration that "black is beautiful" has to somehow be embodied also, as a kind of countermeasure to the way in which black had been seen as a kind of way of being diminished.

I'm prepared for both, but I think the treatment of the subjects in the work, and especially in the way the work has evolved over time, has demonstrated that my intentions actually are to render that body in the extreme, but in the most powerful extreme, and also the most desirable extreme.

I wanted to ask you about geography. So many of your works have very definitive geographic markers there. A lot of those are in America, but there are also a lot that harken back to Haiti. I'm actually Haitian —

Marshall: Oh, you are?

I was amazed to see —

Marshall: The Veves?

Exactly! Just the vocabulary of Vodou there, and the vocabulary of agrarian existence. How do you think of the black diaspora outside of America? How do you place yourself within it?

Marshall: So, the black population in the western hemisphere ... why is there a black population in the western hemisphere in the first place? It's because we were carried to the western hemisphere to be used and profited from. We were brought to all these places. Black folks were brought to Haiti, black folks were brought to Jamaica, black folks were brought to Trinidad, black folks were brought to Brazil, they were brought to Mexico.

We've been carried to all these places, and the community of what we call "black people" now has been informed by all that transportation. But one of the things I recognized early on, doing whatever studies of black history I have, is that even though black folks were transported as slaves, into servitude, when they were carried out of Africa they left empty-handed, but they didn't leave empty-headed. They carried with them the culture they knew, the culture they had, and that culture reconstituted itself in all the places they went.

And because, regionally, on the African continent, most of the slave population was derived from a fairly limited area, there's now similarity in terms of our experiences and the things we believe and the things we see, whether we're in Alabama, whether we're in Brazil, whether we're in Haiti. The only difference between those things is intensity.

One of the ways that intensity was able to manifest itself was that in Haiti, the population of black folks was larger and more concentrated. In America, it was larger but more diffuse, more dispersed. But even in that dispersal, there's still evidence of the same kinds of practices and beliefs and behaviors that you'd see in Haiti, or in Jamaica, or in Cuba, or someplace — you could see that stuff in Birmingham or in South Carolina.

I'm sure, since you were just talking to [cinematographer and artist Arthur Jafa], you mentioned Daughters of the Dust. South Carolina — the Sea Islands around there — because of the conditions of the marshes and swampland, the black population there was larger and more concentrated. There were fewer white people there, so they were able to reconstitute some of those cultural practices in a way that people who were spread out in other parts of the country weren't able to.

These concentrations of black folks can be equated with a concentration of whatever the cultural memory, the cultural history, the cultural practices Africans had before they were taken off the continent. They just simply reconstituted those things but then added to them dimensions that came from a group of people who were, say, in Benin state, as opposed to Congo state.

I see it as a thing that I feel fundamentally connected to, even if I am not a devotee or a practitioner. there are things that I believe in and sort of respect as a kind of foundation mythology that are rooted in some of those practices. I also think if those practices are ever to mean anything, we have to find a way to make use of them in the modern and contemporary world that gives us the same kind of sense of power that you find in superhero narratives, comic books, science-fiction movies: They're largely based on Greek and Roman mythology or Nordic mythology. It's like, we're still talking about Thor. [laughs]

For black people in the western hemisphere, if you can't generate a mythology that creates models of heroism and power out of the mythology that you had, then that means that somehow the mythology you had was not only feeble and weak, but that you are ultimately a powerless people. That's a notion that, I think, that can't be accepted.

Mythology informs history in many ways. When I look at your paintings, sometimes I feel like I'm caught in this liminal space of being right in the moment of the picture, but then also considering their eventual — in the span of centuries — the way they will become historical documents. Do you think of them as historical documents in contemporary time?

Marshall: Yeah, I do. This is one of the functions of institutionalization: You allow for an object to be institutionalized, it becomes fixed in a certain kind of narrative that can be told and retold over time. This is the way in which history becomes at once a kind of calcified narrative but also a living narrative. Because then it's able to be transmitted again to another generation that wasn't a generation when the thing was first made.

I think that matters, because it's a way of acknowledging to people that they are rooted in the world and rooted in history, that they didn't just arrive as they are [laughs] a moment ago. I think it's important for people to feel like they're part of something that's enduring.

You seem to exude this sense of presence, this sense of freedom. When did that kind of come to your senses, like, Oh man, I can gain more freedom by owning property, and these types of things. Do you remember a moment when that kind of sparked in your head?

Marshall: Well it wasn't so much being free because you own property, it had more to do with understanding. So, number one, capitalism [laughs] was the vehicle in which we were commodified as property and brought to the western hemisphere!

You know, the first freedom is to be in possession of yourself — to own yourself, to not be subject to the will of somebody else. In a capitalist society, that means having a certain economic wherewithal so that you can do what you wish to do without having to ask permission.

I learned a lesson from a friend of mine once, who had come into a substantial amount of money [and then] did all the things which I think, subsequently, you're not supposed to do when you come into a substantial amount of money. In a short time [he was] living back with his mother, broke! [laughs] So this is like a cautionary tale right there.

I decided that the whole idea of what it means to be an artist was that somehow you are ontologically oriented toward poverty [laughs]: "As an artist, you don't make money." I had to figure out some kind of way to guarantee that I'd be able to continue doing the work that I wanted to do, whether I made money from the work I was doing or not.

One of the ways to do that is to not be a debt prisoner to somebody else. So if you have a mortgage to make and a car note to make, that means you buy it outright, which means you own it and you don't have to keep paying it off or worrying about somebody coming and repossessing it. So we bought a house that we could afford to pay for, did the work, and that allowed us to use, then, all of the resources we had and were accumulating to put directly into our work, because we didn't have a mortgage payment to make! We weren't looking for the landlord!

We had a secure base, we had a lot of space, we could do whatever we wanted to: We didn't owe anybody anything. When we worked, we worked to put money back into our work, and I think that matters.

Do you feel that confidence kind of lets itself back into the work?

Marshall: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. You can't underestimate the value and confidence that provides. Here's the thing. Every now and then you hear one of these self-help guru programs, and they say something that actually means something. [laughs] I heard one of these financial planner people do a lecture once, and the concept that made the most sense was to pay yourself first.

I had read a biography of Andrew Carnegie in which he said, "When I was working, shining shoes, if I made 10 cents, I saved a nickel, if I made 50 cents, I saved a quarter. I saved 50 percent of everything I earned — I put it aside until I got enough money to buy out the interests of the other guy I was shining shoes with, and then I hired him to shine shoes for me. And then I'd take a percentage of what he made when he was shining shoes."

He said, "The first time I got paid for work I didn't do, that changed everything for me." So, to make a long story short, the logic of this "pay yourself first," this guy said, "Take 10 percent off the top of everything you earn, set it aside, put it in another place." He said, "what you discover is not the amount of money per se, but that at a certain point, when you've accumulated a certain amount of money, it changes your outlook on the world completely, because you know you have a resource below which you cannot fall." And, in case of emergency or even in case of a desire, you have a resource that you can go to, again, without having to ask somebody for permission to do so.

So for me, this whole freedom thing, that's what it really means to get free. I mean, in some ways you still have to buy your freedom, but that's because you live in a social structure that's organized around capital, and capital does equate with a certain kind of freedom, especially if you can start to generate capital on your own.