In his first New York exhibition, Dr. Charles Smith, sculptor and founder of the African-American Heritage Museum and Black Veterans’ Archive, showcases twenty-nine of his recent figurative portraits. His full-body renderings and busts, made of painted textured concrete, present a chorus of Black Americans from history and the artist’s own life. Communally and individually, Smith’s sculptures intimately engage everyday Black life and aspiration, despite the constant violence that aims to suppress, objectify, and make invisible Black American bodies, stories, and imaginaries.
Central to the Blackness, the spirit, of Smith’s figures is the “shine” they emanate via the illuminative qualities of the jewelry and vibrant clothing they wear, shown in pieces such as the Mardi Gras Queen (all works 2022). The subject, who elegantly holds herself up with a cane, is dressed in a leopard-print bodysuit that accentuates her curves. Large gilded earrings gleam, while a shimmering gold, purple, and green crown signifies her high rank within the Mardi Gras festivities and community.
Shine is also captured and encouraged in the flash of cameras that document Black life, as we see in the portraits of Gordon Parks, who Smith portrays as a younger yet seasoned photographer, skillfully focusing his lens on the comedienne “Moms” Mabley, who is adorned in a gray fur-like wrap as she firmly holds up two American flags, claiming her rightful place in US cultural history. Shine also exudes from the sculpture Libby – A Visitor At The Museum. The titular subject wears a bright-blue bodysuit and multicolored tutu while wielding a camera, seemingly taking a picture of Diana Ross – Singer, Smith’s portrayal of the pop diva, who has been crafted with the same level of adoration as those statues of Aphrodite millennia ago. Smith’s representations of shine are a declaration of space and presence, a demand for hypervisibility that evokes Zora Neale Hurston’s words “How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company?” At once lively, pain-filled, humorous, heart-wrenching—and ultimately beautiful—Smith’s sculptures gaze back at us, shining their Blackness into the world.