Just a month after a French artist installed a building-sized mural featuring a famous Civil Rights-era image, the National Gallery has acquired another work that utilizes its iconic slogan. Glenn Ligon’s “Untitled (I Am a Man)”pays tribute to the workers who marched in the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike of 1968. The National Gallery has added the painting — its first by Ligon, and the first for which the artist reappropriated text — to its permanent collection.
Ligon is an artist who frequently addresses issues of gender and race. He’s favored by President Obama — his “Black Like Me No. 2” is on display in the private quarters in the White House. “Untitled (I Am a Man)” isn’t an exact copy of the signs that were carried in the march — you can see the originals in this famous Ernest Withers photo.
Last month, French street artist JR, who was also inspired by the slogan, pasted a giant image of Withers’ photo on a building at 14th and T Street, N.W.
“This says it all, ‘I am a man,’” said JR, in October. “They created such a strong and powerful image that still resonates today, but in another context. Still people say, ‘I am a man,’ but they care less about the color [of their skin]. It’s ‘we are humans, we are here, we want to exist.’ And I like that, I think that’s pretty powerful.”
Among the National Gallery’s other acquisitions are 51 works by American painter James Castle; a holy-water stoup considered to be a major example of baroque silver; Dutch paintings by Asselijn, Van der Heyden, and Cuyp; and photographs by Linnaeus Tripe, Mark Ruwedel, and Robert Frank. Ligon’s painting will be on display in the contemporary galleries in the East Building Concourse beginning November 20.