Taylor was a 26-year-old African American woman, who worked in Louisville as an emergency room technician. The assailants were local police, one of whom was wounded by Walker in the botched raid. The officer was given aid by his colleagues. Taylor's wounds were ignored. She never stood a chance.
A painting of Taylor now hangs in a darkened gallery on the fourth floor of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It is displayed behind glass, in the warm glow of soft light. It is the only artwork in the room, a commanding presence, and the heartbreaking apex of the museum’s new exhibition, “Reckoning: Protest. Defiance. Resilience,” opening Friday.
In the painting, by artist Amy Sherald, Taylor is seen not in her technician’s uniform but in a fashionable turquoise dress, her hair flowing over her left shoulder, the engagement ring that Walker never had a chance to give her on the ring finger of her left hand. There is no fear on her face. The painting first appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair, and is now jointly owned by the African American Museum and the Speed Museum in Louisville, where it went on view in April. It will be shared by the two museums and remain on view at the Smithsonian until May.
The shorthand description of Sherald is: the artist who painted the official portrait of former first lady Michelle Obama unveiled by the National Portrait Gallery in 2018. It might better be: the artist who created the icon of Taylor, whose death has transcended ordinary tragedy and taken on galvanizing, even religious power among people who are sick to death of racism, police terror and white supremacy.
Sherald wanted this painting to remain in public hands, and its arrival in the nation’s capital is one of the main events marking the fifth anniversary of the Smithsonian’s African American Museum. It is also the occasion for a major reinstallation the museum’s art collection, now centered on themes that have become only more urgent since 2016, including the pervasive inequality and injustice that are the focus of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I think it is a really important moment,” says museum director Kevin Young. “Our fifth anniversary is a chance to look back, look ahead and look around, a chance to honor the moment we are in.”
That moment includes two key developments, the broad social reaction and resistance to the racism embraced and abetted by the administration of Donald Trump, and the ongoing reckoning in the art world with historic patterns of exclusion and denial of Black art. The two trends are intertwined, and resistance has catalyzed new kinds of art, from new artists, exploring new manifestations of historic injustice.
“We are in a renaissance of Black culture and art, and much of the art is commenting on this moment,” says Young.
In Sherald’s portrait of Taylor, painted posthumously, these artistic and historic currents are intimately connected. It has the presence, the smooth finish, the scale and psychological directness of a Renaissance painting, but is distinctly contemporary in its emotional appeal. A woman who was powerless in the face of murderous force is endowed with the higher power of dignity and self-possession. A young person previously known mainly to her family, friends and those she served as a medical worker is now as famous as a first lady, a fame which undermines the pernicious cult of fame, for it brings her no pleasure, no value, no hope of further life.
In the newly configured space, the Breonna Taylor portrait faces another new work, seen through a door of an adjacent gallery. Bisa Butler’s 2021 “I Go to Prepare a Place for You,” is a textile portrait of Harriet Tubman, equally commanding and more explicitly regal than Sherald’s depiction of an ordinary woman thrust into posthumous renown. Made of richly quilted and appliquéd cotton, silk and velvet, Butler’s work was commissioned by the museum, and it helps define an axis of women, connecting Tubman’s antislavery and civil rights work in the 19th century to the ongoing struggle against state violence in the 21st. The pairing seems to echo the hero-king duality of so many male portraits: Tubman is sitting, in charge, farseeing, while Taylor has the classical, active contrapposto of an ancient athlete.
“Both Harriet Tubman and Breonna Taylor are faces of movements,” says Tuliza Fleming, curator of American art and interim chief curator of visual arts. The placement of the two works allows the curators “to really bring up the importance of women in the movement. Sometimes, when you are dealing with social justice issues, women get lost in that.”
Women don’t get lost in the exhibition, which includes works by major historical figures including Elizabeth Catlett and Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, whose 1921 “Ethiopia” is the oldest piece in the exhibit. Other artists include the pioneering conceptual photographer Lorna Simpson and Carolyn Mims Lawrence, an early member of the AfriCOBRA collective, a group founded in Chicago in 1968 that sought to define a distinctly African American aesthetic, brilliantly colorful, political, forceful and animated.
The new exhibition moves the focus decidedly from the past to the present. When the museum opened, it offered an overview of African American contributions to art, including 19th-century artists and others working in a wide range of media. “Initially it was meant to be a sweep of the history of African American arts, over genre, time and theme,” Fleming says. “You couldn’t really get that in most museums in the country.”
The first iteration of the gallery was, perhaps, more distinctly celebratory, with a broad but essential message implicit to every work: Black art isn’t missing from American consciousness because there are no Black artists but because it was never deemed central by White curators. More urgent messages have overtaken that original one, and now the gallery has also been reconfigured architecturally to address that urgency.
Formerly, one entered through a single door facing the oval-shaped central “cultural expressions” gallery. Now, visitors are invited to use a door that faces the escalators. The visual arts, introduced by a gallery of photographs documenting Black Lives Matter protests, are now the first thing one sees upon arriving to the fourth floor.
That proximity to the escalators is also a symbolic and physical link to the lower floors of the museum, where the subject matter deals with history in more strictly narrative and evidentiary ways. The curators welcome that connection.
“People are coming in hungry, and they want to see how the work relates to them,” says Aaron Bryant, curator of photography, visual culture and contemporary history. The visual arts can be esoteric, and alienating, both in content and presentation. That creates unique challenges when displaying the visual arts within a museum with a larger purpose, both historical and cultural. The new exhibition contains work as challenging as anything one would encounter at any museum or gallery around the world. But it presents the work as part of a continuum, connected not just to history, but to the still unfolding present.
It also connects art to the sacred in a way that feels daring, given the often corrosive power of religion and the long history of overt animosity between the two cultural realms. Sometimes these connections are visual and perhaps ironic, as in Kehinde Wiley’s “St. John the Baptist,” one of his on-brand riffs on classic religious painting, or more substantially in Fahamu Pecou’s “But I’m Still Fly,” which uses a gold ground to create a wonderful confusion between temporal and spiritual ecstasy.
But Sherald’s portrait of Taylor explores the spiritual in more subtle and emotionally complex ways. Through religion, we are often invited to relive a past trauma as if it is unfolding perpetually in the present; and through the repetition of that trauma, transcend the fetters of its pain.
Alone in a room all her own, a woman whose life ended in an instant only 17 months ago issues that invitation to the ages.
Reckoning: Protest. Defiance. Resilience opens Friday at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. For more information visit www.nmaahc.si.edu.