But she couldn’t escape the feeling that “there was more to be done with my camera than I was doing,” Chatmon told me. So she turned her lens to the personal and artistic when her father, James “Rudy” Muckelvene, was diagnosed with cancer. She created a photographic record of his illness, until his death in 2010. Still dealing with her grief, Chatmon tried to recommit to her commercial work before realizing there was no going back. “I thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ ” she says.
Chatmon’s work became more and more directed to the beauty of Black children, including her own, whose humanity and value she didn’t see reflected either in art or the world around her. She recalls frustratedly trying to explain the tragedy of the death of Trayvon Martin to Facebook friends, finding “that I was talking and no one was listening. My arguments weren’t enough.”
Her art, she decided, must speak for her. So Chatmon began painting on top of her photographs, creating images that unmistakably present young Black faces as precious, often framed in gold. Recent events have continued to affect her work in ways both thematic and practical. The country’s racial reawakening that began with the 2020 murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery reaffirmed her commitment to an emphasis on the beauty and worth of Black people and Black lives.
The glittering pieces find their roots in the works of past creators like Gustav Klimt, as well as the hours she has spent in museums with her children, Kardan, 17; Kailynn-James, 14; and Kaicie-October, 10. But at their heart, her creations are ultimately inspired not as much by the faces she and her family observed on those museum walls, but by the ones that were missing — those like their own.
“I want them to see themselves as beautiful, not background. It only makes sense that they would see themselves in a celebratory way,” says Chatmon, 42, who lives in Annapolis with her husband, Kardan. Such golden embellishment, she notes, “was historically reserved for those of importance, as special.”
Her subjects shine with a deliberate focus typically seen in depictions of royalty. These gilded images have been viewed and feted around the world and will be featured in “The Afro-Futurist Manifesto: Blackness Reimagined,” an affiliated exhibit of the Venice Biennale April 23 through Nov. 27. The show is part of the event’s “Personal Structures” series by the European Cultural Centre.
Chatmon, who was named one of “7 Artists You Should Know” by director Shonda Rimes’s Shondaland site, and seven other Black artists are part of the exhibit, curated by Myrtis Bedolla, of Baltimore’s Galerie Myrtis.
Grace Ebert, managing editor of Colossal, a Chicago-based online arts publication, says her site has featured Chatmon several times because “we see her work as part of a larger narrative regarding who’s considered valuable and beautiful, what world we’re leaving for future generations, and what we can do today to show people we care.”
It’s not a coincidence that Chatmon’s subjects are people that she is close to, including her children. To Chatmon, that future is inextricably linked to youth: “I have become intensely aware that (it) does not belong to me; it belongs to them,” she writes in her official statement for the Venice exhibition. Still, much of her work, including the series “Deeply Embedded” in 2016 and “The Redemption” in 2018-2019, draws obvious inspiration from the past, such as the “Africa Through a Lens” photography series at the National Archives of images shot on the continent starting in the 1860s.
She has often presented her subjects, their bountiful hair resplendent in coils and curls, and their glistening brown skin in shades from chestnut to mahogany, against a stark white background. But in her latest work, her young subjects are rendered into historical landscape paintings, in hues of gentle greens and blues, now both physically and spiritually “free of the white backdrop,” she says.
Her subjects often are portrayed amid symbols such as circles, birds and suns, evoking an innate divinity and a connection to African culture and ancestors, in the style of the Italian Renaissance. She’s even included upside-down hearts, which she says were found on the Alabama graves of those who likely were captives on the Clotilda, the last known ship carrying enslaved people to arrive in the United States.
“The birds,” she says, represent the descendants of that and other vessels, “a connection to home, a message to the ancestors.”
In December, while she was preparing for Venice, the artist and some of her family tested positive for the coronavirus, and Chatmon’s mother and son were quarantined in the basement of the family’s home. For two weeks she couldn’t access the pieces she was preparing; even when she was finally able to restart and “get back into the groove, I was just foggy.”
But she rallied, and finished her pieces, crafting each brushstroke and painstakingly placing each piece of gold leaf. After Venice, the images will travel to the James E. Lewis Museum of Art at Baltimore’s Morgan State University.
And, as all of her work has been, “they will be placed in gold frames,” she says. “It’s where we belong.”
Leslie Gray Streeter is a Baltimore-based journalist.