Kennedi Carter’s Opulent Portraits of Black Southerners
DURHAM, NC — North Carolina photographer Kennedi Carter celebrates the beauty found in quiet moments of joy, offering viewers a subtle glimpse into contemporary Southern Black life. Her recent series of portraits, now on view at CAM Raleigh, is a fantastical exploration of the iconography of staged photography, featuring models festooned in opulent clothing reminiscent of 17th-century portraiture: gold brocade jackets, intricate lace, and lush velvet coats are paired with pleated ruff collars, chainmail coifs, and some surprising contemporary embellishments. In one portrait (“Shahqeel,” 2020), a man with his hair in twists wears a sumptuous vintage fur-trimmed coat, a thick gold chain peeks out from beneath his white ruff and bejeweled grosgrain tie; he wears a single, studded black leather glove. It’s a strange flex that prompts some compelling questions about style, poise, power, and confidence.
In Flexing/New Realm, Carter captures the power of her subject’s gaze and its ability to claim space within the medium of grand manner portraiture. The show opens with “Stephanie,” a portrait of a woman who appears to ascend from a billowy white cloud of gathered material. The model’s dress, made of paper, is miraculously spared from being shredded by her long, red, razor-sharp nails. While the styling flirts with whimsy, it’s tempered by a sense of solemnity. Throughout Flexing, Carter portrays her 14 subjects as regal and elegant as they command the viewer’s attention with their assured gazes.
In this body of work Carter interrogates what informs our perceptions of power in an image. Is it in the individual(s) pictured, the symbolism embedded in their clothing, or the aesthetic alchemy that’s achieved when they are combined? The show also examines the notion of the “flex” as a measure of power relative to Eurocentric standards. In a recent phone interview with Hyperallergic, Carter discussed the aesthetics of wealth represented in this series, explaining, “The images kind of seize the optics of capitalism and pose the question: does white adjacency articulate a level of wealth that Blackness doesn’t?”
As symbols of opulence and wealth originally only available to aristocrats and royals, portraits were emblematic of power, status, and class. By combining these visual references to European royalty and nobility with contemporary Black aesthetics, Carter subverts this power dynamic, asserting, as the exhibition title claims, a “New Realm” that is not necessarily predicated on status symbols as a measurement of self-worth. “If anything I try to use my work as a way to imagine new worlds, almost as this act of manifesting a world that I want my own children to live in,” she notes. Carter also rearticulates Blackness to counteract the negative associations of experiences that are often rooted in pain. This suggests a level of psychological rewiring that raises a critically important question. As she describes, “[I’m] just trying to use my imagination to think of better worlds with less suffering and trying to depict Blackness without suffering. “Can Blackness be loved without suffering? And it can be, but would we allow it?”
At the center of CAM’s exhibition, two large-scale, vinyl portraits of a cis-man (“Chris,” 2020) and woman (“Cassandra,” 2020) command the space shared by other medium-format film prints. Carter styled both models herself, photographing them in the artist’s home base of Durham: in one image a man wears low-slung baggy jeans with peanut-butter-colored Timberland boots; his white tank is topped with a fur vest, gold chains, and a white ruff collar. The woman wears an avocado green dress, styled with bright red tassels, a feather capelet, gold sashes, and a pair of large hoop earrings. Much like the rest of the work in Flexing, the two images evoke a timeless quality that compresses the past, present, and future. They envisage a realm where beauty, in all its forms, has the audacity to thrive.
Kennedi Carter, Flexing: New Realm is scheduled to continue through January 10, 2021 at CAM Raleigh (409 W Martin Street, Raleigh, NC). The exhibition was curated by the artist and organized by Eric Gaard. While the museum remains closed amid the ongoing pandemic, an online presentation of the exhibition can be found here.