Barkley L. Hendricks (American, 1945–2017)
Lagos Ladies (Gbemi, Bisi, Niki, Christy), 1978
Oil, acrylic, and Magna on canvas
72 × 60 in. (182.9 × 152.4 cm)
© Barkley L. Hendricks. Courtesy of the Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
In 1977, Hendricks traveled to Lagos, Nigeria, to attend FESTAC (Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture). There he met these women, who worked as cooks at a hotel. Photographs show them outdoors, standing on sandy ground. Transporting them to the flatness of a white-on-white painting, Hendricks showcases the range of the women’s skin tones and variety of their shoes. An early critic accused Hendricks of using the “same all-purpose brown” for his figures, on which the artist later reflected: “Damn, even Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles can see a difference in the variety of skin handling I was involved with! The attempt on my part is always to address the beauty and variety of complexion colors that we call Black.” Painting about a hundred years earlier, the American artist James McNeill Whistler (whose portraits are in the Frick's collection) also experimented with form, limited palettes, and flesh color in his portraits.
Speaker Dr. Zoé Whitley on Lagos Ladies (Gbemi, Bisi, Niki, Christy)
Lagos Ladies was completed in the year following FESTAC '77. It was described by Ebony magazine as a “family reunion” for the whole of the African Diaspora. It was held in Lagos, Nigeria. Pre-eminent attendees included musicians such as Stevie Wonder, Sun Ra, Gilberto Gil from Brazil, Miriam Makeba from South Africa, and writers such as Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka and the singer from Trinidad the Mighty Sparrow. Notably, for Barkley Hendricks, the festival was not the artist’s first time travelling outside the United States.
In fact, he told me that while he enjoyed travelling in Africa, he never felt compelled to alter his personal aesthetic as an artist to make it "more African," to visualize some immediately legible notion of Africa (using, say, a high-saturation color palette preferred by some artists or by referencing specific, recognizable West African textile patterns).
He was consistently drawn to people and so identifying compelling subjects for his work was just as easy in Lagos as it would have been in Philly or New Haven. Barkley considered his camera to be a “mechanical sketchbook.” He translated a photograph of a group of friends into this, one of his most enduring limited palette paintings. Their white uniforms establish a continuous field while their postures, expressions, accessories, and hairstyles each a very distinctive presence.
Hendricks' striking combination of slow-drying oil paint and fast-drying acrylic paint defines each woman’s pristine uniform, her skin tone and her distinctive jewelry. He adds to this the defining detail of each wearer’s shoes in yellow, green, red and blue. He crops the feet as a means of effectively conveying them as larger-than-life personalities, albeit on a slightly smaller than life-size scale of canvas.
Make no mistake: had he wanted to depict the cityscape of Lagos, he would have been up to the task! He spent every summer painting precise landscapes in Jamaica and also spent considerable time in Ghana. He had a very particular intention when painting people. He was drawn to them, not their surroundings.