How Kadir Nelson's Artistry Captures The Essence Of Black Excellence, Culture And History
Never stop. Never settle.
May 23, 2019 at 5:16 pm
Point 'Em Out is an editorial series where Ida Harris explores the latest and the greatest in Black art. Thanks to modern-day technology, we get to be virtual consumers of yesterday's icons and today’s most innovative Black artwork, and — if we're lucky — the Black geniuses who produce them.
Kadir Nelson is a national treasure. His artistry celebrates Blackness wholly and commands presence in spaces that are traditionally dominated by white talent, such as New Yorker covers and Sports Illustrated features, in addition to areas we claim as ours, like hip-hop and R&B. Nelson painted the cover art of Michael Jackson’s posthumous album Michael, Swizz Beatz’s G.H.E.T.T.O Stories and Drake’s Billboard chart-topper Nothing Was the Same.
Even more notable is Nelson's painting that visually immortalizes Henrietta Lacks, a poor Black woman whose cells were hijacked and harvested by John Hopkins Hospital. Her cells were integral to medical breakthroughs for a number of illnesses and diseases, including HIV/AIDS.
Nelson is also behind African-American postage stamps bearing tennis great Althea Gibson, writers Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright and the highly anticipated stamp of singer Marvin Gaye, which was released earlier this year in April.
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HBD Althea Gibson, an American tennis player and professional golfer, and the first black athlete to cross the color line of international tennis. In 1956, she became the first person of color to win a Grand Slam title. Stamp design by @kadirnelson #kadirnelson #altheagibson #usps
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On this day in 1914, American novelist Ralph Waldo Ellison was born. An author, literary critic, and scholar, Ellison is best known for his novel Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953. Stamp art by @kadirnelson #invisibleman #ralphwaldoemerson #kadirnelson #stamp
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Check out my new US Postage Stamp! Coming in 2019. Marvin Gaye. With this new stamp in the Music Icons series, the U.S. Postal Service honors Marvin Gaye (1939–1984) — the “Prince of Soul” — one of the most influential music performers of his generation. The stamp design features a portrait of Gaye inspired by historic photographs. The stamp pane is designed to resemble a vintage 45 rpm record sleeve. One side of the pane includes the stamps, brief text about Gaye’s legacy, and the image of a sliver of a record seeming to peek out the top of the sleeve. Another portrait of Gaye, also inspired by historic photographs, appears on the reverse along with the Music Icons series logo. Art director Derry Noyes designed the stamp pane with original art by @kadirnelson #marvingaye #kadirnelson #stamps #motown #usps
On May 15, Nelson’s birthday, the artist unveiled his latest masterpiece, which was created in collaboration with Hennessy's “Never stop. Never settle.” ad campaign: A bronze sculpture of Marshall "Major" Taylor. A cyclist that defied the odds in post-slavery America, Major Taylor is another iconic African American, who is best known for becoming the "world's greatest athlete" around the turn of the 20th century. In 1896, Taylor made history as the first and only African American to compete in a six-day race at Madison Square Garden, where he finished in eighth place.
YouTube | Hennessy US
Nelson revealed his commemorative art piece at the World Trade Center memorial site in New York City, which will also be home to the sculpture.
"I think Marshall Taylor is a shining example of drawing on something bigger than yourself," Nelson said of the athlete at the Hennessy event. "He was an incredible athlete, but he worked at his craft. He saw what he wanted; he had a vision, and he went for it full throttle. That's a really great lesson for all of us."
Like Taylor, Kadir Nelson had a vision and attacked it "full throttle”; this is evident in his work ethic and the execution of the commemorative sculpture of Taylor. In an exclusive interview snagged at the event, Nelson shared insight on his work and position as an artist.
Blavity: How did you become involved with the Marshall "Major" Taylor project?
Nelson: I was approached by Hennessy to do a painting that celebrated Marshall Taylor. At the same time, there was a monument of Taylor that had been vandalized, so they wanted me to create a new monument that celebrated Marshall. Then it grew from a painting to a three-dimensional piece of artwork.
Blavity: Had you heard of Marshall Taylor before taking on this project?
Nelson: I was familiar with Marshall Taylor, but I didn't know his full story until I was approached for this project. I do quite a bit of research to learn more about people and create a depiction of how they’re supposed to be portrayed.
Blavity: You clearly produce work that speaks to Blackness — its experiences and history. Do you consider yourself a Black artist?
Nelson: I consider myself an artist first, who is African American. Certainly, my history and genetic makeup inform the work I do, but first and foremost, I am a creative human being who expresses himself through painting and sculpture — and I'm certainly proud to be an African American. I bring all of that — my ancestry and DNA from both sides of the Atlantic — I bring all those experiences to the work that I do.
Blavity: You're quite busy. I know you just did a collab with writer Kwame Alexander. Could you share a bit about that?
Nelson: Kwame wrote an incredible poem inspired by the election of Barack Obama for The Undefeated. When it was determined that it would be a children's book, I was asked to contribute and make paintings that would celebrate African-American history and African-American excellence; whether it was through the literature, the arts, the civil rights movement, etc.
Blavity: One last question — as a traditional painter working in oil, what are your thoughts on digital painting and the use of technology in art?
Nelson: I think the tide is moving toward digital art, and I don't think there's anything that can stop that. I'm a traditional painter. I imagine I will always be a traditional painter. I don't see myself becoming a digital artist. I like to create with my hands. I don't like there to be a barrier between myself and the artwork. I get to have a physical piece of artwork when I'm finished with it. There's something special about artwork and artifacts created by hand, and I'm proud to be a part of that tradition.
Nelson is a trailblazer who is clearing a path of Black excellence himself while showcasing the many creative avenues and opportunities available for visual artists. More notably, he is a class act who accomplishes this feat with grace.
Check out the words of advice Nelson shared at the event:
YouTube | ida harris