Charly Palmer is not just any black artist. He is one who celebrates and centers blackness as if it is royalty in an America that sees it as something crude. For over two decades, the Alabama-born and Milwaukee-raised creative has painted black subjects in a spectrum of hues, ranging from rich sienna to smoke black.
His themes are historically rooted in the American experience, touching on slavery, Jim Crow, jazz, redlining, civil rights, Black Power, family, love and resistance. He even experiments with Afrofuturism. The artist’s more recent paintings bear headdress that not only speak to black majesty, but also to the beauty and burden of blackness both collectively and individually. Long Live Our Queen is picturesque and pays homage to the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin.
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The Atlanta-based artist’s works are on par with the masterful artistry of deceased painter Barkley L. Hendricks, whose canvasses grace the walls of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and Kehinde Wiley, the selected artist to paint Barack Obama’s presidential portrait. With emboldened color schemes and talkative patterns, the painter matches their unique aesthetic and hyperfocus on black subjects.
Blavity sat down with the veteran painter to learn about his creative journey, the motivation and message behind crowning black kings and queens and how his works came to be hella black.
Blavity: Tell us your inspiration for painting black people with headdress.
Charly Palmer: Initially, it started with the series Battleships, which dealt with the transition from a child to adolescence and the struggle to define oneself in the shift and all the period entails. Then the concept evolved to include other struggles and psychological tie-ins and what goes on in our heads. Slave ships being representative of how blacks endured slavery; I painted watchtowers and antennas at one point that were symbolic of being woke and gaining black awareness.
What is the message for others?
The Americana pieces were about the perception of blackness as seen by others and how it weighs on black people. The masks were symbolic of identifying with our African roots. One piece, called I Love You Stay Away shows hands that resemble the blocking and pushing away of love and relationships. The flowers are about celebrating, gifting and expressing love for yourself and others. When I use flowers, people tend to align it with femininity when it is about beauty. What I loved about Biggie is he acknowledged his blackness. He mentions “being black and ugly as ever”; however, I think he was beautiful and very confident in his looks. I loved that. So the bigger context for head-dressing is honoring blackness and the beauty of being black.
What defines being a black artist?
It means making others aware of what we do and telling a story which celebrates, informs, educates. A black artist is an artist, and their experience is from a black place.
Why is black art important?
It’s as important as any art because it’s American history. It shows our contribution to this country It tells that story visually. Even if black art is not telling a story and the artwork is of landscapes and still lifes, that, too, is important because it is expressed through a black experience.
What are your latest projects?
A lot of my latest projects have been working on black children’s books. Dragon in the Closet is one, and Mama Africa was acknowledged as the best new children’s book by a new artist and won the Coretta Scott King Award. I also completed a commission for the Milwaukee Bucks.
What’s next for Charly Palmer?
To continue to explore the whole beauty of people. To push the envelope without being redundant.
Charly Palmer’s studio is located in southwest Atlanta at the Westview Studios, and you can check out his paintings on his website. His artwork is currently on display at ZuCot Gallery in the Castleberry section of Atlanta.
The video above is produced by Melissa Alexander.
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