Since she was a graduate student of art history, Rhonda Brown has been interested in royal portraiture—who the figures were, why they were depicted with certain regalia, and how viewers perceive them because of the artists’ choices. “I look at that imagery because I’m very keen on how those poses achieve exactly what they’re intended to do,” she says. “They create this sense of importance and reverence that you, as the viewer, are intended to feel when you see these works.” In 2005, a decade after she finished her master’s program, Brown returned to painting and began producing portraits of African Americans, both past and present. “My paintings are also intended to create this very strong sense of understanding and connection to the imagery,” she says, “and to create an alternate sensibility or a contrasted idea of what the dominant narrative in mainstream media is surrounding Black Americans.”
When Brown searched through a collection of old family photos, she could not help but wonder what her grandmother’s life must have been like, and soon her interest extended to the frequently obscured lives of other Black Americans, from people in old snapshots to strangers encountered on the street—even to political leaders, such as Stacey Abrams and Shirley Chisholm. Using bold lines and elongated features, stylistically inspired by Henri Matisse (her favorite artist), Brown focuses on balancing her palette of pastels and muted tones with strong, distinct brushstrokes. She hopes that her portraits will help combat stereotypes of Black Americans, by instead elevating their experience and encouraging viewers to empathize and connect with the people she portrays. “I’m really committed to these principals,” she says. “It’s my point of departure. It’s where I’m coming from.”
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