Lawdy Mama

Portrait of a woman in a black dress with red stripes against a gold background.

Barkley L. Hendricks (American, 1945–2017)
Lawdy Mama, 1969
Oil and gold leaf on canvas
53 3/4 x 36 1/4 in. (136.5 x 92.1 cm)
Studio Museum in Harlem; Gift of Stuart Liebman, in memory of Joseph B. Liebman
© Barkley L. Hendricks. Courtesy of the Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.


This portrait of the artist's relative Kathy Williams was inspired by Byzantine and early Italian Renaissance paintings. In them, gold-leaf backgrounds signal the divine, conveying through material splendor the importance of the devotional object, prompting wonder and meditation. Hendricks learned the painstaking process of applying gold leaf after returning from Europe in 1966. Noting the delicacy of the precious material, he wrote, “The slightest wind or heavy breath will send it fluttering all over the place.” Lawdy Mama’s rounded top, crafted by Hendricks himself, echoes the geometry of Renaissance art and frames the sitter’s afro-as-halo. Inspired by lyrics by Nina Simone, the painting’s title evokes, with a touch of humor, the traditional “Lord” and “Mother” of the Christian faith. Though he acknowledged finding inspiration for his metallic paintings in gold-leaf panels from centuries prior, Hendricks also appreciated them as “shiny things” that appeal to viewers regardless of their knowledge of historical precedents.

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