How Ernie Barnes’s Paintings Became Celebratory Emblems of Black Southern Life

How Ernie Barnes’s Paintings Became Celebratory Emblems of Black Southern Life

One of Barnes’s best-known works is The Sugar Shack (which he originally painted in 1971 and updated in 1976), a sensual and lively scene of Black men and women dancing to a jazz band in a nightclub. The women are clad in slinky dresses and heels, and moving languidly: their hips are mid-swing, their arms thrown in the air. Barnes was inspired by a childhood memory of sneaking into a rhythm-and-blues concert at North Carolina’s Durham Armory. It was the first time he’d witnessed adults moving so freely, and the sight stuck with him. The Sugar Shack went on to adorn the cover of Marvin Gaye’s 1976 album I Want You. Barnes and Gaye were friends, and one day after a game of basketball, the soul singer saw the painting in Barnes’s car and fell in love with it. Though Barnes wasn’t initially thrilled at the proposal to transform his work into cover art, he ultimately consented. The vibrant painting also entered people’s homes and hearts when it was broadcast during the ending credits of the celebrated TV show Good Times. Though he’s remembered for jubilant scenes of pleasure and excitement, Barnes also integrated subtle forms of social commentary into his work. Bridget R. Cooks, curator of the Barnes retrospective at CAAM and associate professor of African American studies and art history at the University of California at Irvine, said that Barnes frequently depicted his characters with their eyes closed to represent the way that humans close ...
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