Sometimes we look at figurative paintings in order to better understand ourselves. We visit museums and galleries to get a glimpse of portraits that appear to gaze back at us — we engage them in a silent back-and-forth, an unspoken negotiation. . . .But how are we ever supposed to see ourselves, to truly engage in that silent exchange, if the subjects of these paintings never resemble us? — Isis Davis-Marks
In the last few years in museums and galleries across the nation, figurative portraiture by Black American artists has been enjoying a renaissance and long overdue attention from curators, academicians, and collectors. Kansas City is not absent in this renaissance, and one of the artists we can thank for that is gifted painter Kwanza Humphrey.
Appropriately named “The Human Experience,” Humphrey’s exhibition at the Bunker Center for the Arts is a bold and lush, yet tender and endearing, exploration of the increasingly radical concept of existing while being Black. Approximately 40 works, evenly distributed between drawings and paintings, fill the compact exhibition space with endearing images of American Blackness in a variety of scenarios.
Humphrey, an alumnus of Lincoln Prep and Missouri Western State University, started painting in 1997. Except for a brief hiatus following the birth of his son, he has continued to produce and evolve as shown in the painterliness of these works.
One work, “Albert – Buffalo Soldier – Young” depicts a Black Civil War soldier. In a contrapposto pose, pipe in hand, he resonates pride and strength while reminding viewers of the uncelebrated contributions of Black soldiers in past wars. “I wanted to paint the Buffalo Soldier with attitude and reverence to counter the public narrative of Black being bad,” the artist states.
Another standout work, “Nedra,” depicts Kansas City fabric artist Nedra Bonds. The subject, in a lush, wine-colored jacket and richly patterned green sweater, sits in peaceful tranquility against the backdrop of a seductive sky. The delicate brown tones of her face merge seamlessly into gray hair that is vibrant and crowning. The result is a masterful and ethereal visceral experience. Humphrey states “I wanted to capture her reverence and intensity and clothe her in a regal color to accentuate her as a Black queen.”
Another noteworthy work is “Associated Civility,” which is centered around a Black woman sitting peacefully in what could be a peaceful day in the park or an outside activity. In this work, Humphrey’s juxtaposition of blues and greens with browns and tans creates an ambiance that is peaceful and engaging yet challenging and confrontative.
A UX designer by trade, Humphrey pays homage to his father in “Pops, Coach.” Working in his standard medium of oil, the artist states,”This one is inspired by my father. Some also know him as a coach. He’s been my best friend and mentor all my life. I am inspired by him every day. His intensity, kindness and strength are all qualities I also strive to live up to and foster in my son.”
The gently powerful paintings and drawings in this exhibition are connected by vibrant blue skies as backgrounds. The artist states that he uses the sky as an answer to an increasingly divided world. Says Humphrey, “We are all in this together and have more in common than we do different.”
As we move from a caustic and turbulent summer into an uncertain future, “The Human Experience” visually presents us with encouraging images that reflect pride, hope, possibility and community.
“Kwanza Humphrey: The Human Experience,” continues at the Bunker Center for the Arts, 1014 E 19th St., through Sept. 30. Hours are by appointment, 816.866.8350. For more information www.bunkercenter.com.