Philly Native Son: Barkley L. Hendricks



As with all other forwards, I opened it (the email) and began to read. Barkley Hendricks... Birth of the Cool... random details... et cetera. Sounded good. Marked my calendar only half-thinking I would actually have the time or determination to view the exhibition. Of course, fate would intervene,and frankly I'm glad it did.

I'm from Philly. Born and raised, North Philly to be exact (by way of Logan, West Oaklane, East Oaklane, Mt. Airy, and West Philly). I know the city, and I'm familiar with the extensive list of local giants: from Pearl Bailey to Cornbread and The Roots. I support them too, beaming with pride when I think about the fact that they come from my village.

My visit to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts--to see what this whole Birth of the Cool thing was all about--was sprinkled with a subconscious arrogance. I kind of expected it to be like all the other nice art I've already seen, with an emphasis on already. But I am happy to say that I was pleasantly surprised.

Barkley L. Hendricks' traveling exhibition, Birth of the Cool, was awesome! So splendid, that I was completely humbled by the aesthetic of the Black Man (collectively) and renewed my vows of undying affection to all my people, with a special ode of endearment to my Brothers. From what his biography suggests, Hendricks is both brilliant artist and common man. A cool throwback who flourished during the late 60s and onward, Hendricks was born in Philadelphia in 1945. He is known for his life-sized oil portraits of African Americans be-ing (as in the Yoruba proverbial context translated by B.M. Ibitokum: "A being ought to indulge in the process of be-ing"). Each portrait captures the African American experience, the aesthetic of the African American man and woman, providing us with a textured portrait through which we may reflect upon ourselves.

Pieces like "North Philly Niggah (William Corbett)" capture Hendricks' brilliant ability to convey the presence of African people. Somehow, the portraits transmit the spirit of the individual inside. The faces hanging on the walls, in these vibrant pictures, are alive: magic.

Beginning in 2008 with the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, the exhibit moved on from the Studio Museum in Harlem to the Santa Monica Museum of Art and is now residing in Philadelphia until January 3, 2010. The final stop on the tour is the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, January 30-April 18, 2010. Hendricks' portraits range from classmates and friends from the 60s and 70s, to individuals he met along the way during his travels throughout Africa and Europe. From "Tequila" to "Tuff Tony" and "Vendetta," most of Hendricks' artwork is derived from his own photography. Hendricks himself explains that his camera is a "mechanical sketchbook," and that he uses his own inspiration and technique to attempt to bring life to his paintings. His 2002 work "Fela: Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen" is a beautiful depiction of the great Fela Kuti and captures the presence of his holiness.

Hendricks attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and also earned degrees from Yale University. But his art aesthetic is as natural as they come. There is something about it that is so African in nature, so vivid and life-like and appreciative of Black folks, that its hardly possible someone could teach him that. Hendricks' portraiture is grounded.

And so, I wonder: how much more do my Brothers have in them? How many of Hendricks' peers were lost to the post-colonial accents of America? And never had a chance to share their worldwivew with us. To create, to be. When I see Hendricks' work, I see a for real Brother. Making and creating, and I know that so many more of my Brothers, Fathers and Sons are out there with so much more to teach us. Much is said of the power of the African woman, to mother and nourish and to give life. But what of the African man's creativity? Looking at Hendricks' body of work, I am inclined to believe that it is our duty, as a community, to intentionally support the creativity of our Brothers and help them remember that every thing, every manner of every creation, in any space,is theirs. Let nothing control the scope of the African man's creation, for when he creates the world must take notice. The world is his, in every direction and from every angle.

They say the Black Man is god. I believe it.

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