After the Main Event, a Communal Meal

In each installment of The Artists , T highlights a recent or little-seen work by a Black artist, along with a few words from that arti...


In each installment of The Artists, T highlights a recent or little-seen work by a Black artist, along with a few words from that artist putting the work in context. This week, we’re looking at a painting by Michon Sanders, who will attend a workshop at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center near Aspen, Colo., this summer. Her first solo show will open at San Francisco’s Friends Indeed Gallery in January 2022.

Name: Michon Sanders

Age: 40

Based in: Oakland, Calif.

Originally from: Tallahassee, Fla.

Where and when did you make this work? This work was finished in 2020 — my school’s studio closed down because of Covid, so I had to move my whole practice to my house, and that’s where I started this painting. It began as a follow-up to a painting I had done called “Repast to Follow” (2019), which won the 2020 AXA Art Prize. I really wanted to capture the same essence of togetherness that’s in that work but in a different setting. I moved to Oakland about seven years ago, and one thing about living here and making work here is that there’s such a deep pride in Blackness that I had never experienced before, and that directly influences my work. I think that had I not moved to Oakland, maybe even if I were pursuing this same path elsewhere, I don’t know how “Black” my work would be, how unabashedly and unashamedly Black. Living other places, being Black was something you kind of had to navigate around, as opposed to thriving in, but Oakland has given me such a huge connection to the pride of Blackness. Being out here has given me a sense of freedom, and I’ve inserted that directly into my work.

Can you describe what’s going on in the work? The title is “Seniors and Children First” (2020), and what you see is the repast, the meal after the wedding or the funeral or the church service or whatever the gathering is. It’s an unwritten rule that seniors and children eat first at gatherings, especially in the South. So it’s a group of folks who are all sitting down to eat — they’re talking, the meal’s probably wrapping up, there are some empty plates and folks are looking through photos, and then there’s a figure in the middle who catches your eye, who you realize is neither a senior nor a child — and it’s this instance of catching somebody in the act, maybe somewhere they’re not supposed to be. It’s just one of those in-between moments that happens in Black life.

What inspired you to make it? It follows in the same vein as the rest of my personal art practice, which is about capturing those in-between moments of life, especially and specifically for Black people. It’s a way to demonstrate our humanity by illustrating instances of pause, moments in which you might be about to make a decision or change course … or you just happen to be caught in a moment. There’s a strong Black culture around food and gathering, and so I really wanted to do a piece that celebrated that, but not in the traditional “here’s a family meal painting” way.

What’s the work of art in any medium that changed your life? I didn’t grow up with a huge art background; I knew about the Renaissance and the old masters — Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci — and that was what art was for me. As a kid, I really appreciated the statue of David, believe it or not; it was a marvel to me. Then, as an adult, I actually got to go see it in real life, and that was the first time I ever had that experience with a piece of art where you stand in front of it and are overtaken with emotion. I just cried. My mom was like, “What is wrong with you?” Seeing it for real, knowing a little bit about what went into making it and just contemplating what an amazing piece of physical artwork it was, that really made me appreciate art in a way that I hadn’t in a long time. Even before I started to look into art as a career for myself, I was in awe of the technical work that went into this piece of marble carved to perfection. I think that was sort of the draw, that somebody took a rock and made a beautiful thing out of it.

When I look at later contemporary portraiture, like the work of Kehinde Wiley or Barkley L. Hendricks, though, it reminds me that there can be so much more to art than that. You can insert meaning; you can insert depth. You can insert personality and emotion. Now that I’m an adult and I’m making my own art, contemporary artists are more my jam. Hendricks — he was my early painting inspiration, and then when I finally got to see some of his paintings in person, when the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco hosted the Studio Museum in Harlem’s “Black Refractions” show, I realized that the statue of David is kind of what art is supposed to be, but Hendricks’s work, and all of these Black artists’ work — I never was taught that art could be this. Seeing that, I realized, “Oh my God, there are Black people who paint other Black people! And that’s normal, and is celebrated, and it should be more celebrated.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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