2020 has been the most dizzying year in recent memory, upending much and not enough of our sense of our security, place, and hope in the future.
This disorientation is so pervasive that even the September issues of fashion magazines—which typically serve as paper bastions of luxury, privilege and aspiration—have redirected to reflect the shifting national consciousness.
Breonna Taylor has posthumously landed on the covers of O, the Oprah Magazine and Vanity Fair, while global activists including Angela Davis and Tamika Mallory, will be featured on the cover of British Vogue.
American Vogue has opted to center Blackness in another way, commissioning contemporary artists Kerry James Marshall and Jordan Casteel to create paintings for its special September issue, which will be centered on the theme of “hope.” (It’s worth considering that sentiments like grief, despair, or rage also capture the moment, but unlike “hope,” probably do little to sell advertisements.)
As the magazine noted in a press release, only a handful of artists have ever been asked to create such covers, including Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí. But this year, “with our world turned upside down by the plagues of COVID-19 and presidential incompetence,” Vogue writes, it decided to invite Marshall and Casteel to paint their interpretations of “hope.” They are the first Black artists to be commissioned to do such work.
“Marshall and Casteel were given complete freedom to decide who would be on their cover, a real or imaginary person, and how that person would be portrayed,” said the magazine. “The only requirement was that they choose a dress by one of four Vogue-selected designers for their subject to wear.”
For her cover, Casteel painted Black fashion designer and activist Aurora James wearing a sky-blue Pyer Moss gown. Sat on her Brooklyn balcony, James is framed by the borough’s skyline: patches of brick buildings offset by sprawling, open sky.
“I think of the sky as being full of endless possibilities. A lot of hope lies within that. The two birds next to her are a moment where I think of flight—the opportunity to move into new spaces,” the 31-year-old artist explained. She chose James in large part for her efforts in trying to make the fashion industry more fair and inclusive to its workers.
James is the creator of the 15 Percent Pledge, which challenges major retailers to dedicate a minimum 15 percent of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses (the number is taken from the percentage of people in the U.S. who identify as Black).
“I believe that what Aurora is doing is hugely important in creating the long-term change that Black people deserve and this country owes us,” said Casteel. “I see her as a light in a lot of darkness, and a potential for hope, a representative of change across all creative industries.”
Vogue itself has committed to the 15 percent pledge, reports the Washington Post’s fashion critic Robin Givhan, with editor-in-chief Anna Wintour pledging to “make every effort toward ensuring that at least 15 percent of its freelance contributors are Black” starting in 2021.
For his cover, painter Kerry James Marshall, 64, chose a fictional Black woman, also wearing an evening dress, but from Virgil Abloh’s brand Off-White. The white gown with slate gray and parakeet green details is gorgeously rendered, but it’s Marshall’s subject that commands the reader’s attention.
Her skin is painted in rich, dark hues—her braided hair, wrapped in chignon, nearly the same color as her skin. It is evocative of Marshall’s other work, in which the dark skin of the people he paints is intended to be “at the edge of visibility,” he says.
“If you’re going to be painting a face as Black as I’m painting them, they can’t just be a cipher, like a black hole. They have to be mysterious but available. If you say, ‘Black is beautiful,’ you have to show it. And what I’m doing is showing it at the extreme. Yes, it is black—very black—and it is very beautiful.”
Givhan considers this a key part of the potency of Marshall’s portrait.
“One can be overwhelmed by it and see only the color. Or one can get lost in its depths and become transfixed by the subtle nuances within the shadows,” she writes. “He asks viewers to look closely at her unavoidable Blackness and consider what they see.”
But perhaps the figure’s most interesting quality—one that invokes the theme of “hope” in the most novel, provocative way—lies in her expression. She denies the audience her gaze, looking off to the side, lost in a moment that is hers alone. This, of course, is deliberate on Marshall’s end. As he told the magazine, he aims to communicate the quiet composure and confidence of a woman who does not need you to acknowledge her in order to know herself.
“I’m trying to build into her expression that she’s not dependent on the gaze of the spectator. ‘I’m here and you can see me, but I’m not here for you,’” said Marshall. “That’s a critical element. The great word, ultimately, is going to be ‘self-possessed.’ That’s what I’m aiming for.”
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