It is the Last Supper. Jesus, dressed in a radiant white robe, is at the center of a long table, dining with his apostles on the night of his betrayal. Portent weights the air. In a gesture of support and love, one disciple has put his left arm around Christ's shoulders. He doesn't appear to notice. His eyes are locked on the face of the man who will deliver Him to His enemies: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Obviously, this isn't Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper," which the Renaissance master painted on the wall of Milan's refectory of St. Maria delle Grazie around 1495. This is "Jesus Ebonius," a rough but arresting interpretation of the scene featuring only black men that was painted by Myrtle Pierson, a 73-year-old artist from Florida. The disciple embracing Jesus is Muhammad Ali and the sprawling, vividly colorful, acrylic-on-canvas painting is the centerpiece of Pierson's thought-provoking exhibition at the Norman Parish Gallery.
While the show includes some lovely, touching portraits depicting African American family life, it is dominated by "Jesus Ebonius," which fills one wall, and the large preliminary sketches for the work that take up most of another. In Pierson's version of the Last Supper, the apostles are some of the most prominent men of color from yesterday and today. In addition to Ali, they include Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes, Frederick Douglass, Jesse Jackson, Nelson Mandela, Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing. As the model for Jesus, she used her son, Ed.
When she began the painting a few years back, Pierson knew what she was getting into. Leonardo's "Last Supper" is one of the most revered images in the world. Even in its decayed, repeatedly restored state, it represents the ultimate union of artistic brilliance and religious significance, the pinnacle of Renaissance achievement and Western iconography. Other artists have painted the scene over the years, but all their efforts pale in comparison.
Pierson was well aware of that when a friend suggested she paint the Last Supper as a gathering of black men. "I wasn't going to try and compete with Leonardo," says Pierson, who was born and raised on Chicago's South Side and earned her bachelor of fine arts degree from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1948. "I know where I am in the scheme of things. He's a genius. I like to paint."
But the idea of creating her version proved irresistible. "The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a really terrific idea," she says. "There were all these wonderful black men I could choose from. I could pick anyone I wanted. I'm sure some people might take offense at the picture. But that doesn't bother me. It was something I just had to do."
She chose men who represented the "wisdom and strength of our community." Mandela was included because of his stature as a statesman, leader and humanist. To portray Judas, she chose Thomas because of her antipathy toward him as a person and jurist, a feeling first developed because of his statements during the Anita Hill controversy and reinforced by his subsequent actions on the Supreme Court.
"There are a lot of things that he's done that I don't like," Pierson says. "Take affirmative action. When I was very young and trying for a job in the late 1940s and early 1950s, I went to 13 publishing companies looking for work as an artist. And the answer was always no. We don't hire colored, and certainly don't hire women. It's not like that today. Affirmative action did a lot of wonderful things. It got a lot of people jobs. And Clarence Thomas, who benefited from it, has done what he could to get rid of it. I think that's wrong."
In the painting, Pierson doesn't demonize Thomas. He is shown facing Jesus, with his left hand raised. The pose was probably adapted from a photograph of his swearing-in ceremony as a justice. But here he is surrounded not by family, friends and dignitaries but by the towering historical figures of Robeson, Marshall, King and Malcolm X. It's clear that Pierson believes he doesn't belong in such exalted company.
While "Jesus Ebonius" is a forceful, provocative work, its effect comes as much from the idea of a "Last Supper" featuring black men as from its artistic merits. Pierson is a skilled painter, but her magnum opus suffers from problems with perspective and rendering. The figures to Jesus's left--particularly Mandela, Jordan and Ewing--appear to have been severely compressed to fit into the picture. The South African leader is essentially a disembodied head hovering in space, and his face looks a bit like that of the late Redd Foxx. The two basketball stars have been radically shrunk and their faces are only slightly more recognizable.
Those problems are understandable given that Pierson had never painted such a large picture and was working from photographs. The technical quality of her portraits, particularly of African American fathers and their children, is much higher. "One More Spoonful," for example, is a warm, sweet, meticulously painted image of artist Lorenzo Pace feeding his toddler daughter as she sits on his lap.
The family portraits were executed in the early 1990s, while Pierson was still teaching art in the Elizabeth, N.J., school system, where she worked for more than 30 years. She retired in 1996 and moved to Weston, Fla., with her husband, Ed, a retired singer for the New York City Opera. "I did a series called 'Visions of Strength, Portraits of the African American Father,' " Pierson says. "I'd gotten tired of hearing how bad black fathers were. That really galled me. So I decided that instead of just being angry, I'd do something about it and I started calling men I knew and asking them to come pose with their children."
Some of the fathers were initially quite reluctant, she recalls. "So I used my secret weapon. I called their wives. They'd say, 'When do you want him to come, because he will be there.' "
Myrtle Pierson at the Norman Parish Gallery, 1054 31st St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m., through Aug. 17. Phone 202-944-2310.