so many paintings, so little time

Moment of Color

In Uncategorized on February 16, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Charlotte's Crown in Sir Allan Ramsay's Coronation Portrait, 1761

While Barack Obama was working at getting elected, I was occupied with a series of paintings. I had been commissioned by the Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC, to make work based on their portrait of Queen Charlotte by Sir Allan Ramsay.

Sir Allan Ramsay, Coronation Portrait of Queen Charlotte, 1761, Mint Museum

Queen Charlotte, for whom the city was named, was married to King George III. The two ruled England when the colonies decided enough was enough. Now, you may wonder what Obama has to do with an English royal. And if you’re anything like me, the near certainty that Queen Charlotte was of mixed race escaped you. If you live in Charlotte, however, it wouldn’t have. Charlotteans, as they call themselves, have strong feelings about their namesake. For the 33% who are African-Americans, she is the Black Queen. For most of the rest, she’s British, by which they mean white. She looks white in her portrait hanging in the museum. More or less. Maybe her hair’s a bit frizzy, her lips somewhat thick and her nose broad, but Black is not the first thing that springs to mind when you see her. Stuart Jeffries, reporting on my project in the Guardian in London, writes:

Charlotte is intrigued by its namesake. Some Charlotteans even find her lovable. “We think your queen speaks to us on lots of levels,” says Cheryl Palmer, director of education at the Mint museum. “As a woman, an immigrant, a person who may have had African forebears, botanist, a queen who opposed slavery – she speaks to Americans, especially in a city in the south like Charlotte that is trying to redefine itself.”

Jeffries continues:

…[Aptekar] started by conducting focus group meetings with people from Charlotte to find out what the Queen and her portrait meant to citizens of the US city…. Among those who attended is congressman Mel Watt, one of very few African-Americans in the House of Representatives and who represents the 12th district of North Carolina that includes Charlotte. “In private conversations, African-Americans have always acknowledged and found a sense of pride in this ‘secret’,” says Watt. “It’s great that this discussion can now come out of the closet into the public places of Charlotte, so we all can acknowledge and celebrate it.”

I fly down to Charlotte.  Why should I care about this Queen Charlotte, I’m wondering? OK, so she was a precocious seventeen year-old plucked from obscurity out of the Duchy of Mecklenberg-Strelizia in the north of what was to become Germany and she was crowned Queen of England. An idealistic teenager, she was upset by the number of her countrymen returning home in caskets or wounded from a senseless war. She wrote King Frederick of Prussia a passionate letter urging him to end the war. Though he ignored it, others didn’t and her humane gesture made the rounds of royals all over Europe, including King George’s mom who was trying at that very moment to pry her son away from a hot commoner. She invited Charlotte up to the palace.

I ask the groups to imagine Charlotte writing her letter today, in Charlotte, NC. To whom is she writing, and about what? Someone suggests she’d have a blog about the pathetic public education and crushing poverty effectively killing young people in Charlotte. Another proposes a green agenda–she was wild about horticulture and founded Kew Gardens in London. The bird of paradise, originally from Brazil, was given its botanical name, Strelizia de la Reine, to honor her for first cultivating it in England.

Bird of Paradise (Strelitzia Reginae)

Viewers notice her vulnerability in Ramsay’s painting. Despite all the regal trappings, the throne, the crown, the heavy drapes, the lavish Queen get-up, when you focus just on her face, you find the 17 year-old who doesn’t know what hit her.

DETAIL Sir Allan Ramsay, Coronation Portrait of Queen Charlotte

Much beloved as Queen of England, Charlotte offered something for everyone in in this southern city–a touch of English class, a black heroine, an anti-war activist, a nature lover, the founder of the first orphanage in London, plus an ad for luxury textiles, a major industry in North Carolina.

When I get on the plane to NY that night, at the end of a very long day made easier by Contemporary Curator Carla Hanzal who had commissioned me, I leave with four hours of videotape, and I am reeling from all the Charlottes revealed to me. Soon after, I set out formulating what will become six separate panels each revealing a facet of this Queen. Together, these six paintings equal the surface area of the original portrait. They will hang in the new Mint Museum building now under construction in the Charlotte business district, and will link its collections to those remaining in the original historic Mint building more off the beaten path. Before they leave for Charlotte I will show them in New York as part of an upcoming portrait show.

I am bringing Charlotte, the Queen of England with African blood, back to life in new paintings just when Barack Obama becomes the first mixed race President of the United States. Palette change.

Barack "Barry" Obama, second row center, seen with his junior varsity basketball team, 1977, Punahoe School Yearbook, Honolulu

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  1. Black & White all right. In sight. No fright. Taken by Ken to new heights.

  2. […] portrait in Nova Scotia, and audience members mentioned a long African American tradition in Charlotte, NC and Charlottesville, VA of discussing Queen Charlotte as the Black Queen. This oral tradition […]

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