Walking through Pressing Ideas: 50 Years of Women’s Lithographs from Tamarind, I was struck by the depth and variety in the exhibition, and one print in particular stood out: Margo Humphrey’s The Last Bar-B-Que. I was immediately drawn in by the lithograph’s vibrant color, but what kept my attention was the obvious link to Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. I have studied medieval art, and I am interested in any artwork with religious undertones; this print is no exception. The amount of detail, the mix of religious and African American cultural symbolism, and the reference to da Vinci’s masterpiece intrigued me.
Researching these works, I learned two things: 1) People have crazy conspiracy theories when it comes to The Last Supper; and 2) Margo Humphrey is a fantastic artist. Humphrey, known for her bold, expressive use of color, was one of the earliest African American female artists to distinguish herself in the medium of lithography. She has traveled the world gaining inspiration for her work as well as inspiring others through her teaching and art.
Her pieces are very personal: they lead the viewer on the narrative of her life and self-discovery while beautifully capturing broader aspects of African American, and, more generally, human, cultural experiences, including food, religion, music, and relationships. As Humphrey says, “The majority of my work is in the narrative form. I use mental and verbal allegories as a basis for my imagery. Within this context I use a palette of intense color to express energy and visual excitement.”
The differences between da Vinci’s The Last Supper and Humphrey’s The Last Bar-B-Que are vast. Humphrey uses vibrant colors, incorporates an outdoor setting and traditional picnic food (such as watermelon and fried chicken), includes two obviously female figures, and of course, focuses on figures who are African American. Her use of color is intriguing, though. As in several of her other works, three figures are actually blue, a striking shade that draws attention to the figures corresponding to Christ, Bartholomew/Nathaniel, and James. It is also worth noting that the figure corresponding to Simon is a sunny shade of yellow.
Humphrey describes this work as “a serious piece: a rewriting of history through the eyes of my ancestry, a portrayal of a savior who looks like my people,” which makes the blue color even more surprising. These vibrant, non-literal colors provoked me to speculate about what Humphrey was trying to communicate: the unimportance of skin color, perhaps? Or maybe she was inspired by color’s significance in other traditions, such as the Hindu tradition of depicting Vishnu, the Supreme god and Preserver of the Universe, with blue skin. Humphrey has traveled extensively, including to the islands of Fiji, which have the world’s 5th largest Hindu population, and according to The Faculty Voice (a newspaper written by the faculty of the University System of Maryland), The Last Bar-B-Que was inspired by Humphrey’s trip to Fiji. Hindu art is dominated by depictions of Vishnu, and, taken within this context, Humphrey’s lithograph transcends African American and Christian cultural experiences to celebrate the universality of spirituality, a common theme in Humphrey’s work.
This piece, through humor (“Judas” is in prison stripes), color, and beautiful details, is multi-faceted and multi-layered—it can be enjoyed on many levels. Be sure to come see The Last Bar-B-Que and the other beautiful lithographs in Pressing Ideas: 50 Years of Women’s Lithographs from Tamarind, on display at NMWA now through October 2, 2011.
—Elena Gittleman is an education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts