Kerry James Marshall, one of the leading international artists working today, is donating a portrait of prolific author, literary scholar and award-winning filmmaker Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. to the University of Cambridge. The work is Marshall’s first ever formal, painted portrait of a living sitter (not including self-portraits), and is only the second work by the world-renowned American artist to join the collection of a public institution in the UK. The painting was unveiled today at the Fitzwilliam Museum on 2 October where it will be on free, public display for the first time.
On behalf of the University, I would like to extend my sincere thanks to both Kerry James Marshall and Skip Gates for donating this unique portrait to our collection. This is a very important donation – not only as this is the first portrait of a living person that Marshall, one of the most significant artists of our time, has ever created but also that it depicts one of our remarkable alumni and honorary graduates, half a century after he first came to study here in 1973. We hope this portrait, soon to be on display at the Fitzwilliam, will inspire the next generation of thinkers and academics.Deborah Prentice, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge,
Gates is a literary critic, professor, historian, and filmmaker who is currently the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is responsible for rediscovering some of the earliest known African-American novels and has published extensively on the recognition of African-American literature as part of the Western canon. Gates was the first African-American person to be awarded a Paul Mellon Fellowship at Cambridge University in 1973 when he was 22 years old. He stayed on at Cambridge to complete a PhD in English. In 2022 the University of Cambridge awarded Gates an honorary degree, one of the highest accolades it can bestow upon those who have made outstanding achievements in their respective fields.
Marshall’s painting Henry Louis Gates Jr. 2020 depicts the acclaimed intellectual seated in a windowed room, in front of a desk which holds an Emmy award and a small stack of his books, including The Signifying Monkey and Wonders of the African World. The idea for the portrait was initiated when an image of Gates was included in a 2018 exhibition curated by the Black Cantabs Research Society, a student group set up in 2015 to create a link between past black scholars, present students, and prospective students. Then, in spring of 2019, Clare College hung a photographic portrait of Gates in its Graduate Common Room. When visiting Cambridge for the unveiling of that photograph on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the Mellon Fellowship, Gates was inspired by the historic, richly coloured portraits which hang in Old Court. Following a discussion with Kerry James Marshall, a close friend, the two decided to create a colour portrait of Gates which would be gifted to the University.
Kerry James Marshall’s work reveals and questions the social constructs of beauty, taste, and power. Engaged in an ongoing dialogue with six centuries of representational painting, Marshall has deftly reinterpreted and updated its tropes, compositions, and styles, even pulling talismans from the canvases of his forbearers and recontextualizing them within a modern setting. At the centre of his prodigious oeuvre, which also includes drawings, sculpture, photography, and video, is the critical recognition of the conditions of invisibility so long ascribed to black bodies in the Western pictorial tradition, and the creation of what he calls a ‘counter-archive’ that reinscribes these figures within its narrative arc. Marshall is widely regarded as one of the most important contemporary artists working today, and has exhibited widely around the world.
Kerry James Marshall’s portrait of Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. is an extraordinary new acquisition for Cambridge and the Fitzwilliam Museum. Marshall is unquestionably one of the very greatest artists working today, and his generous gift of his powerful, subtly characterised portrait of Skip Gates, radical and influential thinker and academic, cements the enduring connection Gates feels so strongly to the University of Cambridge, where he first studied fifty years ago. It’s a painting that truly celebrates past, present and future, both by its manner of painting – referencing historic portraits of scholars and their studies, and because of the way both Gates and Marshall have been so pioneering in their fields. I offer heartfelt thanks to both painter and sitter for contributing this work to our collection. We are enormously proud to exhibit it at the Fitzwilliam.Luke Syson, Director and Marlay Curator of the Fitzwilliam Museum
The portrait is now on view for free at the Fitzwilliam Museum.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University. Emmy and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker, literary scholar, journalist, cultural critic, and institution builder, Professor Gates has published numerous books and produced and hosted an array of documentary films. The Black Church (PBS) and Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches (HBO), which he executive produced, each received Emmy nominations. His latest history series for PBS is Making Black America: Through the Grapevine. Finding Your Roots, Gates’s groundbreaking genealogy and genetics series, has completed its ninth season on PBS and will return for a tenth season in 2024.
Gates is a recipient of a number of honorary degrees, including his alma mater, the University of Cambridge. Gates was a member of the first class awarded “genius grants” by the MacArthur Foundation in 1981, and in 1998 he became the first African American scholar to be awarded the National Humanities Medal.
A native of Piedmont, West Virginia, Gates earned his B.A. in History, summa cum laude, from Yale University in 1973, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in English Literature from Clare College at Cambridge in 1979, where he is also an Honorary Fellow. A former chair of the Pulitzer Prize board, he is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and serves on a wide array of boards, including the New York Public Library, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Aspen Institute, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Library of America, and The Studio Museum of Harlem. In 2011, his portrait, by Yuqi Wang, was hung in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. He is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.
Kerry James Marshall was born in 1955 in Birmingham, Alabama. He received his BFA from the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles in 1978, where he was later awarded an honorary doctorate in 1999.
Marshall has exhibited widely throughout Europe and the United States since the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 2018, Kerry James Marshall: Collected Works was presented at the Rennie Museum in Vancouver and Kerry James Marshall: Works on Paper at The Cleveland Museum of Art. His site-specific outdoor sculpture A Monumental Journey was also permanently installed in Hansen Triangle Park in downtown Des Moines, Iowa. From 2016 to 2017, Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, the first major museum survey of the artist’s work, was on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, followed by The Met Breuer, New York, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. In 2015, he created a large-scale mural specifically for the High Line, marking the artist’s first public commission in New York. In 2013, his work was the subject of a major survey entitled Kerry James Marshall: Painting and Other Stuff. The exhibition was first on view at the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen in Antwerp. In 2014, it travelled to the Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Copenhagen and was co-hosted by two venues in Spain, the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid.
Marshall received the 2019 W. E. B. Du Bois Medal, which is considered Harvard University’s highest honour in the field of African and African American studies. In 2016, the artist was the recipient of the Rosenberger Medal given by The University of Chicago for outstanding achievement in the creative and performing arts. In 2014, he received the Wolfgang Hahn Prize, an award given annually by the Gesellschaft für Moderne Kunst at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. In 2013, he was one of seven new appointees named to President Barack Obama’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. Other prestigious awards include a 1997 grant from the MacArthur Foundation and a 1991 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.