The Power Of Centering Blackness In Iconic Art

RIGHT: “Umoja,” artist JoMerra Watson’s take on Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” was painted after the murder of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling in the same week. RIGHT: “Just Mona” is Watson’s twist on “Mona Lisa.”
JoMerra Watson wanted to see paintings that centered black people. So using classic paintings as inspiration, she created her own.

A fact about art galleries: They’re very white. Not just the walls, or the parts of canvas untouched by paint. They’re filled with white people, white sculptures, white artists, white art subjects.

JoMerra Watson wanted more. She wanted to see art that depicted her people. Paintings that revealed the sexiness of a black woman’s full lips; charcoal drawings that tackled the complexity of natural hair; art that showed every kink, curl, and wide-set nose. But when she went looking for it, there wasn’t much to find, even in a city as diverse as Chicago, where Watson grew up. So, she created her own.

Watson has taken popular paintings from Vincent van Gogh, Leonardo da Vinci, and Picasso’s Blue Period, and wiped them clean of the white figures so often portrayed. In their place, she’s added black faces, lots of them. She put a black woman with short curly hair into her take on Picasso’s paintings, and a dark-skinned black woman into her spin on Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”

“Stop Killing Us,” Watson’s take on “The Scream,” reveals frustration with the phrase “All Lives Matter.”

At 15, Watson picked up her first paint brush. She was a sophomore in high school and beyond a few art classes, had no formal art training. “My mom took me to Michael’s a lot,” she says. “I would always buy little art books like ‘How To Draw Realistic Figures’; those things are more useful to me now, ironically, than they were when I was younger.”

Currently, Watson is a junior at the University of Missouri majoring in Fine Arts with an emphasis in painting. She took her first formal painting class a year ago, and knew it was something she wanted to make a profession. “Art for me is so personalized. It teaches you a lot about yourself; it teaches you how to see things and not just look at them,” she says. “Most artists are making personal work — we’re all connected to our work. So, you’re basically asking people to stop and think about the things that you think about.”

A fact about art galleries: They’re very white.

Watson’s art has taken her on a journey of self-discovery, to find out who she is as a black woman in this specific social justice era. She wants her work to start a conversation, to make viewers think about the Black Lives Matter movement and the representation of black people in a different light. She wants people to ask questions. “I’m working through my own explorations with my art because I am interested in finding out more of my history,” she says. “The more I learn, the more I want to share what I’m learning through this practice. Especially since art is one of those areas not many [African Americans] are well versed in.”

Since beginning this journey of self-discovery, Watson has been inspired by black female artists such as Sophia Dawson, Lorna Simpson, and Kara Walker. She’s also encountered a few skeptics, people who don’t believe that her art will be able to speak to a broad group of people. Watson agrees; she says she’s not creating art to be consumed by the masses, but for black people:

“My work is not for people with formal art training. It’s a conversation that I’m having about myself and about my people, with my people, and I’m using what I know and what I’m learning in formal art training to better communicate that message. Having formal art training is important, but I’m not trying to show off my skills of the perfect glaze, I’m trying to send a message.”

The Power Of Representation

Watson doesn’t just subvert iconic paintings; her original art has drawn inspiration from Solange Knowles, commented on the black community’s difficulty in addressing homophobia, and explored the evolution of African American headwraps. But there is one connective thread throughout: a focus on black representation.

Watson recalls growing up and being frustrated with her looks — she didn’t appreciate her curly hair or her full lips because those weren’t images she was exposed to.

Crown,” painted in 2017, is the first of a series that will focus on the evolution of African American women and the headwraps they wear.

Negative portrayals of black people or the sheer lack of representation doesn’t just plague the millennial generation Watson is part of. In the 1940s, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted a study with white children and black children widely known as The Doll Test. In the study, the psychologists used four identical dolls, the only difference being the color of the doll’s skin. They asked the children questions like which doll is the bad doll, which doll is the prettiest, which doll is the ugliest. They found that both black and white children chose the lighter dolls for all of the good traits and chose the darker dolls for all of the bad traits. The Clarks concluded that the separation and treatment of black children in school led to them feeling inferior to their white peers. It also led to white children believing they were superior. Kenneth Clark went on to testify in the Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1954. The Supreme Court even used his findings in its final decision.

“Zones” is a commentary on the difficulty the black community has in addressing and calling out homophobia.

In 2010, the doll test was recreated by CNN to see if the results had changed, 70 years after the original trial. The new results showed that both black and white children still had what researchers called a “white bias,” or feelings that white children were superior to black children.

Similar feelings are what drive Watson to create work that challenges her peers’ preconceived notions about blackness and beauty. One of her paintings, “Just Mona,” showcases this. “Just Mona” is her rendition of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” a piece that is perhaps one of the most recognizable paintings in the world. Watson’s recreation of this piece features a black woman with big hair, full lips, and a bright smile.

Creating Unity

During the summer of 2016, after hearing about the murder of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Watson wanted to channel her hurt and anger into something productive. At the time, she was experimenting with incorporating social justice movements into her work.

“I didn’t want it to be gruesome. A lot of the work I see pertaining to social justice is and it speaks volumes, but it almost always has to involve a beautified image of us being killed,” she says. “So while I think it’s important, I also think it reiterates what we already know: We are being killed. I wanted to make something that spoke to our distress, but that also said ‘we can come out of this, we’re stronger together.’”

Inspired by Picasso’s Blue Period paintings, “We Can’t Breath” portrays the heaviness of Eric Garner’s death on the black community.

Watson created “Umoja,” the Swahili word for “unity,” to share her message of stronger together. “Umoja” is a rendition of Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” Along the bottom of the painting, where a cityscape appears in the original, is a group of black figures, fists raised in unison. She also incorporated the colors red, black, and green, to mimic the Pan-African flag.

She wanted the painting to make people stop, think, and inquire more. She believes this is the best way to get people from opposing sides to come together. “I want people to learn how to ask questions,” she says. “Asking questions will cause you to do research and ask more questions. That’s how we get cultured. That’s how we learn things about people. That’s how we dismantle hate.”

“Umoja” led to a series of paintings inspired by instances of police brutality and the current social justice rallying cry, “Black Lives Matter.” In October 2016, Watson hosted her own art show called “U-N-I-T-Y: The Grand Pop Up Art Exhibit.” The goal was to bring her friends and peers into art spaces that they normally wouldn’t visit, shattering the idea that museums and galleries are only for white people. She succeeded. The show featured more than a dozen black artists from the University of Missouri; attendees ranged from her art professors to friends who had never stepped foot into a gallery.

“I still want to do more. My recurring thing that I’m trying to put into my life is the unity of the black community,” she says. “We need it. Especially in the art field because there are not a ton of us. You’d be surprised what black kids can do when you actually cultivate their talents.”

Painted in 2016, “Don’t Touch” is inspired by Solange Knowles’ song “Don’t Touch My Hair,” from her 2016 album “A Seat at the Table.”

For now, Watson is continuing to focus on creating art that pushes people to talk about the difficult topics and encourages the black community to love themselves. “There are certain things I look at daily that remind me ‘you’ve got black girl magic, you go, you be great.’ I want my work to do that for people too,” she says. “I want us to regain our power and pride and continue to display it in ways that uplift us, because when we feel like we poppin’, we pop.”

Purchase one of the paintings featured in this piece, or commission a painting from Watson here.