Artist Tawny Chatmon is among the many Black American talents coming to prominence during our collective moment of transformation. While galleries, museums and other art spaces begin to reassess their mission statements and take a serious look at how diversity can improve their environments, talents such as Chatmon continue to lead conversations centering on equality. Her photo-painting montages are a dramatic and sensational celebration of Black beauty. She manipulates photographic portraits using digital software, and then adorns them with designs in acrylic paint and gold leaf.
Much of her work shares an aesthetic sensibility with the paintings from Gustav Klimt’s golden phase. The Austrian symbolist painter, known for his intense, gilded artworks suffused with romantic intimacy, is indeed an influence. Klimt used textured mosaic gold motifs in detailed, intricate, beautiful patterns that mimicked what he saw in Byzantine relics. While Chatmon’s use of pattern and color is very similar to Klimt’s, her intentions are not at all the same. What she wants to emulate in her own art are the feelings of regality, magnificence, and beauty she feels when she views his work. “I am looking to convey to the people who sit for me that they are important, they are valuable, they are beautiful,” she explains.
Before becoming a fine artist, Chatmon, who had an early background in theatrical arts, worked as a designer and a commercial photographer. It was only after her father passed away that she started to reassess her own potential. She had been very involved in her father’s care while he was ill, and before he passed away, he gave her important counsel. “He just said: ‘The way that you’re doing all of these things for me, why don’t you try to go that hard for your photography?’” Chatmon recalls. After her father passed, Chatmon tried to push through her grief. “Part of me just wanted to do nothing at that point,” she says, “and then the other part of me wanted to make him proud and do what he told me.”
Soon after, Chatmon began to feel differently about her own role as a parent. “Losing him made me think about how my kids would feel without me. What will they do? With everything that was happening in the world, the thoughts of leaving my kids behind weren’t sitting well with me. I then started focusing on creating artwork.” And her way of doing that was to create beautiful portraits of Black people, art that reflects the world she wants her children to live in. “Me and my kids were going to marches and protests, donating to different organizations, but I kept thinking: What more could I do?” It wasn’t until the Maryland-based artist began to ask herself subsequent questions such as “What am I doing to contribute to that world that I want for my children?” that new concepts and themes began to guide her images. Pivotal queries such as “How can I contribute to some sort of change?” further informed her process, until finally she allowed her photographs to speak for her. “The work,” she says, “became more powerful than anything I can say.”
“I’ve always known I’m a Black woman,” she says, noting the inequality she witnessed and experienced while growing up. After becoming a mother, her activism began to germinate and she instinctually started thinking about the implications of creating a better world for her family. “Having children confirmed that discrimination of any kind is not okay for my children,” she says. “All of my concerns and all of the emotions [connected] to them are poured into the work,” she says. Her aim is to impart those feelings of excellence she sees in her subjects and in the future of Black art. Chatmon wants anyone looking at her art to feel the same sense of power she felt when she first encountered a Klimt painting: “I want the viewer to feel those feelings of regality, of magnificence.”
A large part of that majesty is how she sees her own family—which is at the core of Chatmon’s practice. Until recently, much of her work featured portraits of those she shares a close relationship with. “The subjects are mostly my children, my relatives, my nieces, nephews, godchildren—so the work is always personal for me,” she says. Which is why Chatmon takes such care in how she presents what she has envisioned. For example, a pivotal phase of the artist’s image creation involves an array of design programs that allow her to manipulate her photographs. Once they are printed out, Chatmon lays them out on tables across her studio before applying 24-karat gold and/or jewels to her captures. She does this because the meticulous, labor-intensive process involved in each image’s adornment demands time, precision and aesthetic decisions which she hopes will motivate those who contemplate her art.
That preoccupation with intention is by no means accidental. Chatmon is one of a group of artists who insist on making images where Black people are the focus. In other words, she believes that representation is key to changing the world. “Black art created by Black artists is about celebrating ourselves. We’re telling our own stories. We are presenting ourselves as more than just background, more than just ‘Other.’”
Nowhere is this more evident than in the way Chatmon embeds jewels and African symbols in her portraits. The goal of elevating whomever she portrays is brilliantly achieved with a nod to the techniques of Renaissance painters like Sandro Botticelli who used gold leaf to embellish and enhance their subjects. Chatmon is also drawn to the African sankofa symbol, as well as to birds, which she sees as “our connection to our ancestors, our connection from heaven to earth.” She has also been known to include upside down hearts in some of her work, which she discovered on tombstones during a research trip to Black cemeteries along the Underground Railroad. Chatmon’s next collection of portraits promises to be a further expression of her knowledge of and enduring attraction to the art world’s past and future. She is exploring the combination of collage and paint through developed, meticulous curation of historical landscape paintings from the collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Titled Pastoral Scenes, the series will be included in the upcoming Personal Structures exhibition at the Venice Biennale. Showing from April 23 to November 27, Chatmon’s visions will fulfill what she once considered a lofty ambition: to champion an idea of Black excellence on a global scale.